You know you're in trouble when you can't even get your walk-back story straight. Stung by the worldwide derision that met President Barack Obama's fudging and fumbling of his chemical-weapons red line in Syria, the White House leaked to the New York Times that Obama's initial statement had been unprepared, unscripted and therefore unserious.
The next day Jay Carney said precisely the opposite: "Red line" was intended and deliberate.
Which is it? Who knows? Perhaps Obama used the term last August to look tough, sound like a real world leader, never expecting that Syria would do something so crazy. He would have it both ways: sound decisive but never have to deliver.
Or perhaps he thought that Syria might actually use chemical weapons one day, at which point he would think of something.
So far he's thought of nothing. Instead he's backed himself into a corner: Be forced into a war he is firmly resolved to avoid, or lose credibility, which for a superpower on whose word relies the safety of a dozen allies is not just embarrassing but dangerous.
In his rambling news conference, Obama said that he needed certainty about the crossing of the red line to keep the "international community" behind him. This is absurd. The "international community" is a fiction, especially in Syria. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are calling the shots.
Nor, he averred, could he act until he could be sure of everything down to the "chain of custody" of the sarin gas.
What is this? "CSI: Damascus"? It's a savage civil war. The antagonists don't exactly stand down for forensic sampling.
Some countries have real red lines. Israel has no real friends on either side of this regional Sunni-Shiite conflict, but it will not permit the alteration of its strategic military balance with Hezbollah, already brimming with 60,000 rockets aimed at Israel.
Everyone in the region knows that the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah or the acquisition of the Fateh-110, with the accuracy and range to hit the heart of Tel Aviv, is a red line. Hence the punishing Israeli airstrikes around Damascus on advanced weaponry making its way to Hezbollah.