The phrase ‘read my lips’ has since come to mean a lie is going to be the next thing coming out of the mouth of the speaker but at the time this little phrase resonated with the American middle class in general and Ronald Reagan followers in particular because it summed up in 6 words what these two groups wanted to hear from then candidate Bush. Up to that point George Herbert Walker Bush was thought of as a fairly ineffectual go-along get-along politician who accused Reagan of practicing voodoo economics mere months before becoming a Reaganomics disciple once asked to run for Vice-President on his ticket. After that utterance Bush’s image became one of a tough-talking man’s man who by God in heaven wasn’t going to take money out of hard-working American’s to fund a bunch of liberal causes. If you told me that the line was written by the same guy who wrote Ronald Reagan’s famous ‘Make my day’ speech, I wouldn’t doubt you for a second. Maybe Bush’s tough talk on taxes wouldn’t have been needed if it had been known 25 years ago that he would have been the last President to father a male child up to the present time.
When then President Bush struck a bargain with Democrats to raise taxes in 1991 in the aftermath of the successful prosecution of the Gulf War and the owner of a 90% approval rating, he and his phrase became laughingstocks to much of the American public. It wasn’t so much that he lied (politicians do that all the time); it was that the original phrase was too well written and resonated too well when he first said it and everyone remembered it. ‘Read my lips’ probably cost Bush his job in the 1992 election because even though he apologized for the comment and swore he wouldn’t raise taxes (unlike his opponent Bill Clinton who pledged to raise taxes on high earners) no one believed him. Whether he would have been elected in the first place without saying ‘Read my lips’ is another debate.
President Obama made these comments last year about the civil war in Syria during an unscheduled appearance at a White House press briefing. He had previously and since made other comments noting that there would be ‘consequences’ if chemical weapons were used and the users of chemical weapons would be ‘held accountable’ for their actions but the ‘red line’ comment sounded tough and was widely reported on and remembered.
The United States has been in the middle of a number of ‘regime changes’ in the Middle East over the past few years starting with the invasion of Iraq under the pretense that they were harboring weapons of mass destruction. American cruise missiles (as part of a ‘NATO’ operation) prevented Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi from using his air force to prevent a civil uprising in 2011 and we stood aside and watched as Egyptian President (or dictator – choose your word) Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office by protests to allow the military to set up an elected government. When the Egyptian people elected the Muslim Brotherhood party (who then tried to claim much of the same powers that Mubarak had) and more protests ensued, the Egyptian military forcibly removed the elected government, suspended the country’s constitution, and installed an interim government. Most anyone would call this a military coup d'état but the United States government won’t declare it as such since that would mean a halt to the U.S. 1.23 BILLION DOLLARS in military aid to Egypt and by some twisted government economic logic not giving away the 1 BILLION DOLLARS would cost the government 2 to 3 BILLION DOLLARS because then the Egyptian military wouldn’t be able to complete their weapons contracts with our military (if you don’t believe me, click here).
In the last month the U.S. has accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons and claimed iron clad proof. Much of the world expected the President to have sent some drones or cruise missiles Syria’s way once the ‘red line’ had been breached. Instead the President has asked Congress for their approval and tried to enlist international support to punish Syria.
What changed? Russia changed. While Libya and Egypt had no great importance to Russia, Syria is host to their only naval base in the Mediterranean and buys arms from Russia (I don’t know if they pay for their arms with Russian aid in the same way Egypt uses American aid to buy American weapons). While Russia turned a blind eye to regime change in the rest of the Arab world, they have done some saber-rattling of their own by sending three warships to the Mediterranean ostensibly to evacuate Russian citizens.
With the potential of counter strikes and a full-blown proxy war with Russia brewing, it's no wonder that President Obama wants to make sure that the Congress and/or other nations have his back. Part of the reason Obama became president was the public’s dissatisfaction with how the invasion of Iraq spun out of control and he doesn’t want to have a tidal wave of public dissatisfaction cripple his party for years to come.
If President Obama had never made his ‘red line’ comment he could have just condemned the chemical weapons strike and left things alone. But having made such a memorable comment makes him (and the country by extension) look weak and impotent unless action is now taken. The President unsuccessfully tried to claim that the ‘red line’ was an international ‘red line’ and a congressional ‘red line’ in a recent speech but none of the treaties against chemical weapons gave a mandate for military action or mentioned a red line.
I’m not sure why the deaths by chemical weapons in Syria is more abhorrent than the 500+ Egyptian protesters who were killed in the last two weeks or the two million people plus killed in the genocide in Sudan over the past 20 years except that in the world of international politics it's more a matter of who your friend is than what is being done. Dead is dead is dead whether by gas or bullet or machete. In any event I’m happy to see the U.S. staying out of the Syrian mess for now. In a speech made on Saturday Secretary of State John Kerry said “This is our chance to join together and pursue accountability over appeasement. We in the United States know and our French partners know that this is not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter”. Kerry is certainly not being silent but while the US tut-tuts the brutal putdowns of some civil uprisings and flexes its military muscle against others I don’t see how not sending cruise missiles or drone planes to make a point against the use of chemical weapons is the equivalent of silence or some sort of tacit approval. I would define tacit approval sending the Syrian government 1.23 BILLION DOLLARS to buy the chemical weapons from our chemical weapon manufacturers. If the government is so upset about chemical weapons, why haven't they invaded Syria to get rid of them a long time ago? Did they think these weapons would just sit in a warehouse and never be used? Not exactly the same line of thought being taken in the quest to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
As it has become apparent that the country doesn’t have much of an appetite for a unilateral strike into Syria and while some nations are more than willing to have the US make a stand against chemical weapons none except France are willing to commit anything more than well wishes, the government has aggressively courted congressional votes and downplayed the scope of the planned punishment. A presidential speech to the American people is scheduled for Tuesday. Monday Secretary Kerry said the strike would be an “unbelievably small, limited kind of effort” while on the Sunday news shows White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said that the president will tell the country “what this is not. This is not Iraq. This is not Afghanistan. This is not an extended air campaign like in Libya.” This intense effort to gain support doesn’t pass the smell test. Bombing Libya was a unilateral decision, so why is public support needed for this ‘unbelievably small, limited kind of effort’? There is something going on that isn’t being said. If the President wants to strike out at the Syrians, I wouldn't be any more harsh on him than I was about the Libya strikes two years ago (click here to see), but if he's asking for my permission he doesn't have it.
I'm sorry that the President is feeling like he and the country are looking soft because he uttered his ‘red line’ comment last year but he said it and not anyone else and I see no reason to the rest of the country has to back up the offhand comment. I think if there is one thing Americans have realized since the post 9-11 American adventures in the Middle East is that we have no friends in that part of the world and the only allies we have there are the ones that have been bought and that any new regime brought into power by America is at least as likely to become our worst enemy than our paid ally. If the President wants to claim that a military strike in Syria is needed because it helps American interests to get the current rulers out of power that is a debate the country should have, but just because some sarin gas was used to kill hundreds of people instead of instead of tanks or bullets or human bombs is no reason for our country to enter yet another military adventure in a region of the world where burning the American flag is the regional pastime.
Despite the ‘red line’ gaffe, I can’t imagine any foreign country really thinking the President is soft or unreliable. After all, he ordered the Navy strike on the Somali pirates and Osama Bin Laden’s execution and didn't ask for permission either time. I have no doubt that if he felt it vital to our country's interests to punish Syria for the chemical weapons strike it would have been done weeks ago. But perhaps the President is just laying a subtle trap for the Syrian leaders and their Russian overlords in the manner of this great American strategist from the 1950’s:
This military strategy was only recently unclassified under the Freedom of Information Act. Even the Sun Tzu classic 'The Art of War' did not include this particular strategy. I suspect he was saving it for his comeback...