Like the “vital interests” which the red lines are supposed to secure, their credibility will be diluted if too many are declared. Such interest inflation is tempting these days, as U.S. allies and partners want reassurance that their importance to Washington is not being downgraded due to post-Iraq and Afghanistan war weariness and the economic recession. Neither friends nor adversaries are likely to be impressed by the red-line rhetoric unless it is buttressed by all the necessary resource commitments. But these commitments are vulnerable to the other pitfalls.
The second pitfall is that a red line which is very specific can inadvertently signal adversaries that they can do whatever they want short of the line. This was the problem with Secretary of State Acheson’s announcement in January 1950 of exactly where the U.S. “defense perimeter” in Asia lay. Its bypassing of Korea prompted Stalin to encourage North Korea to invade South Korea. Today, in the Obama Administration warnings that it would be intolerable for Syria to employ or move around its chemical weapons, President Assad could perceive that as long as he doesn’t cross that red line, there won’t be a major international intervention, and he can continue massacring his opponents.
The third pitfall to be wary of when laying down a red line – absolutism -- has been evident in U.S. policy toward Iran. By insisting that Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons will not be tolerated, and foreswearing “containment” of a nuclear-armed Iran, the United States has injudiciously restricted its options. For if and when U.S. intelligence determines that Iran does in fact have an active nuclear weapons program, the United States will have no alternative but to join Israel in attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, even if that provokes a region-wide conflagration. A failure to participate in such a “preemptive” (actually preventive) military strike, given the unequivocal pronouncements of both the Bush and Obama administrations, would drastically undermine the credibility of U.S. security commitments around the world. So Washington has tied itself up in knots with its own red line.
Counsel for avoiding these red-line pitfalls can be sought in the policies of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and in the works of Nobel prize-winning strategist Thomas Schelling. Both were worried about countries locking themselves into an otherwise avoidable collision course because of over-definitions of the stakes in particular conflicts – often the result of a sequence of escalating threats designed to alter the opponent’s behavior —and overly-explicit threats of the punishments they would deliver if deterrence, or compellence, failed.
Eisenhower, rather than laying down explicit red lines in dealing with Mao’s threats to invade Taiwan and Khrushchev’s efforts to strangle West Berlin, deterred these moves by his posture of deliberate strategic ambiguity as to how he would respond to their provocations –without specifying exactly what acts would trigger which responses, not excluding nuclear retaliation.
Schelling developed the concept of “the threat that leaves something to chance” for persuading an opponent that a dispute was heading in a direction that had to be modified to avoid a very costly, yet unspecified, outcome –especially for the opponent. John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis was quintessentially Schelling-esque.
The implications for managing and issuing threats in today’s world:
Refrain as much as possible from defining one’s objections to an adversary’s moves as a red line. When additional toughness is required, and a marker must be laid down, keep it broad enough, and vague enough, to permit the other side to back down without great loss of face, but also to allow the line to be slackened to allow more time for conflict- resolution diplomacy -- without loss of one’s own credibility. Yet, crucially, always – when laying down a red line -- be sure that there will be adequate resolve and resources to deal with the consequences of its being breached.
Brown, an adjunct senior fellow at the American Security Project, is author of the forthcoming book The Faces of Power: Constancy and Change in U.S. Foreign Policy from Truman to Obama.