Last month, amid allegations of chemical weapons use in war-torn Syria, President Obama delivered a firm ultimatum on what such an act, if confirmed, might mean for the U.S.: Chemical weapons use would be a "game changer" for the Obama administration, he said, and the crossing of that "red line" would demand action from the international community.
Yesterday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed that after investigating the matter, "the U.S. intelligence community assesses with some degree of varying confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria." The chemical sarin, according to the administration, appears to have been used in two separate Syrian attacks, in Damascus and Aleppo, last month.
Immediately, a handful of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle demanded action from the administration, insisting the so-called "red line" has been crossed and that action must follow. But in a scenario rife with suboptimal choices, the White House has signaled caution in its path forward, demanding "airtight" evidence of an attack and its perpetrators before becoming increasingly entwined in a high-risk and potentially costly intervention.
"The risk is getting caught in Syria for a decade," said Steven Cook, the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with CBSNews.com. "There's concern about getting caught up in someone else's civil war."
Was the red line crossed?
For military hawks, Mr. Obama's "red line" comment presents an opportunity to demand more from the administration: Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both of whom have been calling for an increased U.S. response for months, immediately urged the administration for a definitive and escalated response.
"The president of the United States said that this would be a 'red line' if they used chemical weapons. The president of the United States has now told us that they used chemical weapons," McCain said yesterday. "We must give the opposition the capability to drive out [Syrian President] Bashar Assad once and for all."
For a president who takes great pains to avoid black-and-white policy assessments, Mr. Obama's tough talk on Syria and the "red line" rhetoric puts the administration in a difficult situation, according to Cook.
"I think the administration's sort of gotten played on this one, and caught by its own rhetoric," he said. "I think it would be hard to imagine that they would climb down from the place where they are saying, 'It's a game-changer, it's a red line.' I think this should augur more active U.S. involvement in Syria."
So far, the Obama administration doesn't seem particularly compelled by the argument that the president's firm positioning on chemical weapon use mandates some sort of escalation. Plus, White House officials are rebutting the notion that the red line has necessarily been crossed.
On a conference call with reporters yesterday, a White House official said that "all options are on the table" in terms of a possible response - but that the intelligence assessments cited by Hagel and Kerry "are not alone sufficient" when it comes to determining whether or not a "red line" has been crossed.
"Given our own history with intelligence assessments, including intelligence assessments related to weapons of mass destruction, it's very important that we are able to establish this with certainty, and that we are able to present information that is air tight in an public and credible fashion to underpin all of our decision making," the official said, alluding to the Bush administration's mistaken assessment about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, which drew the nation into the Iraq War. "That is, I think, the threshold that is demanded, given how serious this issue is."
Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the president is wise to dismiss internal political jockeying.
"Let's be honest, this is a highly political issue. The people who want intervention in Syria are going to rush out to say, we must intervene because this is a 'red line.' But simply saying we've crossed the 'red line' and then not presenting a realistic course of action is a little like crying wolf - it doesn't mean anything," he told CBSNews.com. "Declaring that this is a critical 'red line' without being able to define the actions to be taken [once we cross it], putting pressure on the administration without really considering whether you have enough of a justification to get support and world opinion -- that's politics but it's terrible strategy."