There is so much wrong with the current "red-line" mess with Syria that a little sorting out is in order. It has gotten to the point that you can't tell which fiasco you are talking about without a scorecard.
In the first instance, of course, there is the self-inflicted wound element of the problem, as reported in Sunday's New York Times. Apparently, according to the paper, the president's initial use of the term "red line" was an ill-considered bit of rhetorical muscle-flexing on his part. Since the president is the font from which all policy flows, it can hardly be called freelancing, but it was something close, making policy with a slip of the lip and less reflection on consequences than is truly desirable.
Of course, the word "consequences" cuts to another dimension of the problem that goes beyond the process misstep involved. Declaring a red line without figuring out the consequences you are willing to impose in advance is asking for trouble. It is the equivalent of a parent threatening an unruly child by counting to three: It works fine if the child doesn't have the courage, curiosity, or recklessness to find out what happens after you get to three. Typically, however, the approach doesn't work if the one you are seeking to talk back into line is a proven mass-murderer.
Another problem associated with the red line that Sen. John McCain quipped was written in "disappearing" ink has to do with the various ways United States has hemmed and hawed about the issue in the days since evidence appeared that suggested the red line might have been crossed. Admittedly, some of this was soundly cautious, a "let's be sure" reaction that was a hard-learned lesson from Iraq. But some of it -- notably the mixed signals that included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's suggesting that the line might have been passed (a little, somehow, but not too much, but still worrisomely) while also saying the United States was considering tougher measures while also not actually taking any -- was a classic illustration of a rudderless reaction.
Also unsettling was the press spinning in the past 24 hours in the wake of the Israeli strikes on Syria. While the Israeli action was, as the president has indicated, wholly justifiable, the United States seems to be playing both sides on this one. On the one hand, there were assertions to the press in the wake of the first attacks that the United States was not notified of them until after the fact. On the other, on Monday morning NBC reported that U.S. national security sources had indicated the Israelis had used U.S. intelligence in their preparations.
None of the dimensions of this muddle is nearly as ugly as the whole notion that it is appropriate to have declared the use of chemical weapons to be a red line in the first place. There should be no debate about the fact that the use of weapons of mass destruction is an especially heinous threat warranting strong response. But events have underscored just how arbitrary and morally questionable the distinction is. According to the United Nations, as of last month, more than 70,000 people have been killed in Syria by conventional means in the past two years. And, as reported by CNN, citing comments from U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Navi Pillay, that may "actually be an underestimate." Not only is that more than twice the estimated death toll in the Libyan conflict but, as it happens, it is roughly the same as the immediate death toll in the wake of the nuclear attack on Nagasaki at the end of World War II (60,000-80,000).