WASHINGTON Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Barack Obama now finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.
The origins of this dilemma can be traced in large part to a weekend in August, when alarming intelligence reports suggested the besieged Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. After months of keeping a distance from the conflict, Obama felt he had to become more directly engaged.
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, "Are you crazy?" But when Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and "change my calculus," Obama said in response to a reporter's question, to the surprise of some of the advisers who attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the red line came from.
With such an evocative phrase, Obama defined his policy in a way some aides wish he could take back.
"The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action," said one senior official, who, like others, spoke anonymously. But "what the president said in August was unscripted," another official said. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the "nuance got completely dropped."
As a result, the president seems to be moving closer to providing lethal assistance to the Syrian rebels, even though he rejected such a policy just months ago. U.S. officials have even discussed with European allies the prospect of airstrikes to take out Syrian air defenses, airplanes and missile systems, if government use of chemical weapons is confirmed.
Israel's airstrike in Syria overnight Thursday, apparently targeting missiles bound for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, highlighted a volatile situation where as Syrian chaos grows, its neighbors look out for their own interests.
With Syrians already dying by the thousands from conventional weapons, Obama now confronts the most urgent foreign policy issue of his second term, one in which he must weigh humanitarian impulses against the risk to American lives. After about two years of ineffectual diplomacy, whether or how he chooses to follow through on his warning about chemical weapons could shape his remaining time in office.
The evolution of the "red line" and the nine months that followed underscore the improvisational nature of Obama's approach to one of the most vexing crises in the world.
"I'm not convinced it was thought through," said Barry Pavel, a former defense policy adviser to Obama now at the Atlantic Council. "I'm worried about the broader damage to U.S. credibility if we come back with lawyerly language to get around it."
Others worry that Obama may have trapped himself into going too far. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, said military involvement in Syria would risk "a large-scale disaster for the United States."
Further complicating Obama's choices is the murky nature of the evidence against Syria, a constant concern because of the lingering memories of mistaken intelligence on Iraq's weapons a decade ago.