But our minds tell our eyes these children are dead, killed by cowards who detonated chemical weapons of mass destruction while families were sleeping in their homes in the suburbs of Damascus. Last week’s brutal chemical weapons attack reportedly killed at least 355 and wounded 3,600.
It occurred exactly one year after President Barack Obama issued his famous “red line” warning to Syria’s President Bashar Assad and his generals. While the world remembers Obama’s warning, most have forgotten it originated not in a doctrinal declaration but in a seemingly off-the-cuff press conference answer. On Aug. 20, 2012, after a television correspondent asked a bizarre two-part question about Syria’s chemical weapons and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney’s tax returns (really!), Obama began with Romney and backed into Syria. In an almost folksy way, Obama said, “a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”
In the past year, after Syria’s chemical weapons were reportedly moved, the Obama officials indeed changed their calculus — they stopped referring to the movement of chemical weapons, just whether they were used. In January and March, after international experts concluded — but lacked conclusive proof — that chemical weapons killed some 100 people, Obama was no longer referring to a “red line.”
Even after last week’s unforgettable images of Syria’s murdered children, Obama’s initial comments were restrained — and seemed out of sync with those images on our screens and front pages. When asked about his “red line” warning twice in an interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, Obama didn’t use the phrase. “When you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale ... it is very troublesome,” Obama said mildly, noting officials are still gathering information on what happened. Professorially and almost passively, he talked about “rules of international law” and not getting “mired” into “costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.”
But all that changed Monday, when the Obama administration unveiled the sort of bold and inspiring presidential leadership the world has long needed on Syria’s chemical weapons atrocities. This memorably presidential moment came in the form of a powerful statement — delivered not from the Oval Office but the State Department briefing room, by Secretary of State John Kerry.
“What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world,” Kerry said. “It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. ... And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”
Kerry’s statement was powerfully presidential both in its conceptual foundation and oratorical execution. “Our sense of basic humanity is offended not only by this cowardly crime but also by the cynical attempt to cover it up. At every turn, the Syrian regime has failed to cooperate with the U.N. investigation, using it only to stall and to stymie the important effort to bring to light what happened in Damascus in the dead of night.”
Kerry never looked or sounded more presidential as he built the foundation for a limited U.S. military response in Syria. Indeed, he challenged, without naming, international leaders who armed Syria’s murderous Assad — especially Russia’s Vladimir Putin (who seems to be reverting to his thuggish KGB proclivities); but also China’s Xi Jinping (who risks his future as a leader of world commerce) and even Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (how can a religious leader align himself with a mass murderer of children?). That’s who Kerry surely had in mind when he said: “Anyone who could claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass.”
And finally, Kerry talked about watching on social media those images of the lifeless victims of Syria’s chemical weapons.
“With our own eyes, we have all of us become witnesses,” said Kerry. “All peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.”
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.