Foreign Policy Blogs

Red Lines, Syria, and Rhetoric

Destruction in Syria, November 2012. Source: Washington Post/AP/Narciso Contreras

Destruction in Syria, November 2012. Source: Washington Post/AP/Narciso Contreras

“Kennan believed that language helped make policy and that vague, expansive language would lead to vague, expansive policy,” writes author Nicholas Thompson in a 2012 Foreign Affairs article about Cold War strategist George Kennan.

As the humanitarian situation in Syria gets even worse, as questions over the use of chemical weapons loom larger, and as the thorny issue of U.S. intervention remains undecided, the language that the White House uses to describe and make sense of the civil war in Syria is under a microscope. The New York Times’ fascinating recent look at Obama’s “red line” assertion on Syria’s chemical weapons shows the sometimes unintended role of rhetoric in foreign affairs:

Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference [in August 2012], to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.

“The idea was to put a chill into the Assad regime without actually trapping the president into any predetermined action,” said one senior official, who, like others, discussed the internal debate on the condition of anonymity. But “what the president said in August was unscripted,” another official said. Mr. Obama was thinking of a chemical attack that would cause mass fatalities, not relatively small-scale episodes like those now being investigated, except the “nuance got completely dropped.”

The article suggests that one of the most crucial aspects of the debate over U.S. involvement — the implications of the Assad regime’s possible chemical weapons use — is being shaped powerfully by a phrase whose meaning is not entirely clear. The article notes that problems with the “red line” formulation include the challenges of proving chemical weapons use (and by whom), not to mention an inherent problem of ultimatum-type statements — that they put credibility on the line.

This week on The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution put forth a powerful critique of another consequence of the “red line,” arguing:

These [security] concerns [about chemical weapons] are of course justified, but the focus on security implications — rather than focusing on the 70,000 already killed by good old-fashioned artillery and aircraft — suggests an outdated (and morally problematic) calculus for action. In saying that chemical weapons are a red line, the Obama administration is also saying that the killing of 70,000 Syrians is not a red line, which, when you think about it, is a remarkable thing to say.

While I believe that I am less convinced than Mr. Hamid about the potential effectiveness of some form of American military involvement in Syria, I couldn’t agree more that the “red line” formulation risks ignoring the horrifying death toll and human costs of the conflict in Syria.

As Nicholas Thompson writes in the previously mentioned article, “Kennan would have taken pleasure in this administration’s abandonment of grand shibboleths. No longer does one hear the White House mentioning a ‘war on terror’ or even a ‘war on drugs.’” Though the “red line” certainly doesn’t fall into the “grand shibboleth” category, it is an unstrategic and imprecise statement that carries significant consequences.



Julia Knight
Julia Knight

Julia Knight is a graduate of Yale's Ethics, Politics & Economics program and a proud resident of New York City. She grew up as an American expatriate in Singapore and has traveled extensively, mostly in Asia and the Middle East. Professional experience ranges from criminal justice research at a public defender in the South Bronx to foreign policy research at a think tank to local government in Connecticut. She is interested in the ways that U.S. foreign policy and U.S. domestic policy interact, particularly in terms of American competitiveness, foreign citizens' perceptions of the United States, and job creation at home and abroad. In her free time, she enjoys drinking coffee, swimming, visiting New York's museums, and trying to learn Persian.

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