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Media drawing their own red line on Syria

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Aug. 21, 2013: A Syrian military soldier holds his AK-47 as he stands guard at a checkpoint in Damascus, Syria. (AP)

Is the mainstream media holding President Obama to his red line?

The answer, by and large, is yes.

As the administration weighs air strikes against Syria over its use of chemical weapons, even many liberal publications and commentators are invoking the president’s warning a year ago that such weapons were a line that the Assad regime must not cross.

The press really has little choice. Not only was Obama’s language fairly unambiguous, but John Kerry’s “shock the conscience” declaration after the mass chemical attacks that are reported to have killed more than 300 people left little doubt about the White House stance.

And there is in the media a strong undercurrent of impatience with Obama for not having acted more boldly to help the Syrian rebels — another example, as a blind quote in the New Yorker once put it regarding Libya, of “leading from behind.”

But where exactly do the pundits want Obama to lead on Syria? That, of course, is a more complicated question.

After all, this is a president who won election in part through his opposition to an unpopular war. And while the evidence of Assad using chemical arms seems far stronger than the Bush administration claims that Saddam had WMDs in Iraq, news organizations need to be aggressive about questioning the evidence. What’s more, huge majorities in polls are opposing U.S. military intervention in Syria.

The New York Times’ liberal editorial page is holding the president to his word. 

“This time the use of chemicals was more brazen and the casualties were much greater, suggesting that Mr. Assad did not take Mr. Obama seriously," it states. "Presidents should not make a habit of drawing red lines in public, but if they do, they had best follow through.”

The Washington Post’s left-of-center editorial page implicitly chides Obama for inaction.

“The ‘large-scale, indiscriminate use’ of chemical weapons was a ‘moral obscenity,’ as Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Monday, and some response is needed," it says. "But it needs to be part of a larger strategy aimed at influencing the outcome of Syria’s war. For more than two years, President Obama has avoided crafting such a strategy.” 

And Post columnist and MSNBC commentator Gene Robinson says that after painting that red line, Obama “really has no choice” but to act.

In the liberal New Republic, James Mann concludes, "not much is left these days of the idealism that Obama gave voice to at the time of the Arab Spring; it has fallen by the wayside as a result of the coup d'etat in Egypt. But a failure to respond to Syria's use of chemical weapons would really be the death knell (no pun intended) for Obama's impressive Arab Spring rhetoric of two years ago.”

But even if Assad has clearly burst across the red line,  some on the left fear being dragged into another Middle Eastern war. As Bob Dreyfuss writes in The Nation:

“At this point, if the United States bombs Syria, it will be mostly an emotional and reactive attack designed to protect President Obama’s right flank, because ever since he said that a chemical weapons attack would be a ‘red line’ that would ‘change [his] calculus,’ he’s been pilloried for holding off.”

One exception to the trend is an online ABC News piece that tries to get Obama off the hook by playing linguistic games. 

Noting that what he said in 2012 was that the red line would involve “seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the story contends:

“Despite the description of ‘mass exposure’ to nerve gas, whether the ‘red line’ has been crossed seemingly will depend on Obama’s interpretation of how much gas was used and may also depend on whether Obama intended his ‘red line’ to refer to multiple attacks and large-scale movement of weapons, not just a ‘whole bunch’ of neurotoxins deployed at once.” 

Not a whole bunch? With more than 3,000 people injured in the attacks? Sorry, this reads like a defendant arguing that “it all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz. 

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