The problem with red lines is that, while they may provide our adversaries with clear guidelines, they can box us in and make it very difficult to maneuver and be more flexible in new circumstances…

us-syria-attackOn January 12, 1950, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a speech at the National Press Club describing in detail America’s post-World War II strategic interests. In that speech, focused primarily on the overarching threat posed by the Soviet Union at the onset of the Cold War, he carefully delineated America’s “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific as a line running from Japan, through the Ryukyu Islands, to the Philippines. This “red line” seemed to deny unequivocal U.S. military protection for the Republic of Korea (South Korea). Less than six months later, North Korea launched a military offensive across the 38th parallel that ultimately resulted in the loss of almost 37,000 American lives and countless other lives. Since then a battle has raged between those experts who believe Acheson was reckless in not including South Korea inside our “defensive perimeter,” and other experts who strenuously assert that Acheson had carefully calibrated the wording of his speech. They note that later on in his speech Acheson did underscore that attacks elsewhere in Asia might be countered, but that in those cases “initial reliance must be on the people attacked to resist it” and then for the UN to protect such countries.

Fast forward to July 25, 1990, when April Glaspie had her first meeting with Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein. Only a week later, on August 2, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Thanks to Wikileaks we now know in much greater detail how that conversation between Glaspie and Saddam unfolded. As would any good diplomat, Glaspie began the conversation by saying that “President Bush wants friendship” between our two countries, and that we wanted to “broaden and deepen our relations with Iraq.” While she eventually got around to expressing some concern for aggressive statements made by Saddam and his regime, Saddam responded to these concerns by reiterating a long list of grievances against Kuwait, underscoring that he had tried hard to resolve the conflict peacefully. Crucially, as the meeting was ending Saddam raised the question of his border dispute with Kuwait, to which Glaspie blithely responded that “we took no position on these Arab affairs.”

As with the controversy over Korea, analysts have made plausible arguments both defending and criticizing Glaspie for how she conducted her meeting with Saddam. But what is clear is that we were not absolutely clear about our intentions, either regarding Korea or Iraq because if we had been crystal clear, there would not be any debate among the experts. Red lines by definition do not allow for misinterpretation or nuance. That is why we use the term “red” rather than “gray” or “off white.” A red line is a stark and indelible line that makes it glaringly obvious to everyone what to expect.

While part of the problem is that diplomacy by its very nature tends to soften and render more palatable otherwise indigestible criticisms, there is also an undeniable reluctance on the part of policymakers in Washington to use language that might deprive them of some of their options. As President Obama found out in 2013, clear and unambiguously threatening language can sometimes prove embarrassing, and that the only thing worse than being unclear about red lines is not enforcing a red line that has been drawn. In that case, President Obama had made clear that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would trigger an immediate military response. That was an indisputable red line, which he then felt compelled to erase when confronted with new options and pledges of cooperation from both Syria and Russia. The problem with red lines is that, while they may provide our adversaries with clear guidelines, they can box us in and make it very difficult to maneuver and be more flexible in new circumstances.

This happens in small as well as large matters, and we falter by being too threatening as well as too vague. While serving in our embassy in Sri Lanka in 1990, we were directed to warn the Sri Lankan government that if they closed the Israeli Interest section that there would be severe repercussions for our bilateral relationship. The Sri Lankan government ignored that warning, closed the Israeli Interest section, and then waited for our reaction. We had none. Therefore, a few months later, after Saddam invaded Kuwait, the Sri Lankans—despite a UN resolution imposing a trade embargo on Iraq—filled an Iraqi freighter called the Zanubia with tea. We warned the Sri Lankan government again that there would be severe consequences if they did not abide by the embargo.  But again our warning was ignored because we had not followed through the last time we threatened dire consequences. Of course, with the Iraq embargo we really meant what we said about severe consequences, but one can sympathize with foreign governments that are never quite sure when we mean what we say and when we are just ranting.

And that brings us fast forward again to a few days ago and President Trump’s response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. Pundits will argue for months and even years as to whether the response was appropriate and useful or dangerous and counterproductive. Some will say that it is commendable to enforce international codes of behavior that even the Nazis and Japanese on the battlefield generally adhered to during World War II—moreover, that it is in our national interest to ensure that all nations comply with the spirit of the 1925 Geneva Protocol regarding the use of chemical weapons.  Others will counter argue that making policy based on emotion—the photos of the dead children clearly had a profound impact on President Trump—is probably not a sound long-term strategy. As Talleyrand cautioned centuries ago, in diplomacy and foreign affairs, we should avoid “too much zeal.” While compassion is not something we should ever completely dismiss from our calculus in responding to an international outrage, passion is.

But the real question is simply this: Was there sufficient clarity in our communications prior to the chemical attack? After all, less than four years ago now President Trump warned then-President Obama not to militarily respond to the 2013 Syrian use of chemical weapons. Would North Korea have ever attacked if Acheson had drawn that “defensive perimeter” around South Korea? Would Iraq have ever attacked Kuwait if our government had forcefully warned Saddam of our military reaction? And would Assad ever have dared used chemical weapons had he known without a doubt that the U.S. would respond militarily? Could hundreds of lives have ultimately been saved by a little more clarity?

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