Assessing "red lines" as Obama mulls Syria attack

A year after drawing a "red line" at the Syrian government's alleged use of chemical weapons, President Obama has spent the week teetering on the cusp of military intervention.

It has taken last week's very public and graphic killing of 1,429 Syrians, according to a U.S. intelligence estimate released Friday, for the Obama administration to create a strategy to match the president's August 20, 2012 rhetoric.

What Mr. Obama said last year was: "We have been very clear to the [Syrian President Bashar al] Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. ... That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

While the president didn't specifically lay out last year what the consequences were for Assad if he crossed Mr. Obama's "red line," it's clear the world will find out soon as the administration spent Friday publicly making the case for a potential military strike on Syria.

History of the "red line"

The genesis of the term "red line" was immortalized in the chorus of Rudyard Kipling's 1892 poem "Tommy." Referencing the 1854 Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, Kipling wrote, "But it's 'Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll," describing the thin line of crimson coated Sutherland Highlanders soldiers, outnumbered and awaiting the enemy's charge.

Variations of the phrase have been used frequently in the past - "line drawn in the sand," deadlines, ultimatum - the effectiveness of such warnings resting on a country's resolve to follow through. The first real use of "red lines," in terms of territory, was the product of struggle between Israel and its Arab neighbors, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CBS News.

Other, unspoken "red lines" include the creation of nuclear forces, on both sides during the Cold War.

And most famously, per John Kerry's strongly worded condemnation of the Assad regime on Friday, the international community decided 100 years ago, "in response to the utter horror and inhumanity of World War I, that the civilized world agreed that chemical weapons should never be used again," a statement that leaves little room for interpretation.

The effectiveness of "red lines"

"Red lines" have proven to be an effective deterrent but they also denote that everything short of the line is permissible, making it difficult to enforce in the face of determined and skillful opponent, the Washington Institute's Jeff White told CBS News.

White compared the current U.S.-Syria tete-a-tete to "salami slicing"; the Assad regime inched closer and closer to the "red line" after a year of no reaction to numerous other alleged chemical attacks.

"The line moved from red to pink," White said. "When you start waffling and wobbling on what the 'red line' means and what you will do to enforce it, that will show weakness."

Cordesman notes that the term is always ambiguous. "No matter how you do it, it will always be somewhat arbitrary. It will always be something that can be argued, can be evaded, there will always be the question of: is this a strong enough event?"

While "red lines" have been effective as deterrents, they're not necessarily effective diplomacy tactics, especially when there is no strategy or end goal effectively communicated.  In recent days, what has been most clearly and repeatedly communicated publicly by Obama is his deliberate - some say too deliberate - decision-making process in terms of how to react the alleged Syrian chemical attack.

"So what I've said is that we have not yet made a decision, but the international norm against the use of chemical weapons needs to be kept in place," he said on PBS NewsHour on Wednesday.  On Friday, as well, the president repeated that he's "not made a final decision about various actions that might be taken to help enforce that norm."

Effect of America's foreign policy

The "international norm" against the use of chemical weapons has not been reflected in international response, however, in part due to the current perception of the United States.

"There are doubts about our credibility, our willingness to act, about even what our ability is to transform a strategy into action," Cordesman told CBS News. "It is a matter of neutrals, enemies and allies all over the world. So, in many ways this president faces a test that's far more serious than people who simply focus on the ripple effects in this region."

Cordesman points to Russia, bordered by Islamist countries and Islamist violence, as a country vulnerable to our decisions - decisions we have made against their advice.

Other international entanglements contributing to this sentiment: leaving Iraq without any military capability to fight Iran and leaving Afghanistan without having achieved any major strategic goals. Kerry reiterated these sentiments today: "It matters to our close friends Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon...It is about Hezbollah and North Korea, and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction."

  • Jacqueline Alemany

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