Clarifying his administration's "red line" policy, Barack Obama told reporters Tuesday that if Syria used chemical weapons against its citizens, it would represent a "game-changer not simply for the United States, but for the international community."
The tweaked wording is potentially important because it switches the emphasis from a red line that triggers U.S. action to a red line that triggers international action -- something a U.S. president is less capable of implementing unilaterally.
The point was punctuated twice during the White House press conference. Here's Obama (our emphasis added):
When I said the use of chemical weapons would be a game-changer, that wasn't a position unique to the United States, and it shouldn't have been a surprise.... The use of chemical weapons would be a game changer. Not simply for the United States, but for the international community. And the reason for that is we have established international law and international norms that say when you use these kinds of weapons you have the potential of killing massive numbers of people in the most inhumane way possible and the proliferation risks are so significant that we don't want the genie out of the bottle.
To some observers, these comments suggested that a U.S. response was dependent on a willingness of the international community to respond. Per Roll Call Senior Editor David Drucker:
So, apparently .@barackobama's red line on Syria chem weaps was: If we know Assad used them & our partners joined us in response.— David M. Drucker (@DavidMDrucker) April 30, 2013
The president is of course correct that other countries have drawn red lines when it comes to Syria's use of chemical weapons. But that doesn't guarantee a unified response. For instance: Just this morning Iran said it views the use of chemical weapons as a "red line." Russia too has directly warned Syria not to use chemical weapons. But given the two countries' support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (monetarily and militarily) it's almost inconceivable to imagine the three countries working together even with the presentation of clear proof that Assad used chemical weapons.
So what does the president even mean by "game-changer"?
"By game-changer I mean that we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us," he said on Tuesday. "Obviously there are options to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed." Take of that what you will.