- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2020

They are meant to act as the ultimate deterrent and provide a clear marker that, if crossed, will draw fierce retribution.

But “red lines” in American foreign policy over the past decade have often failed to dissuade bad actors, particularly foes in the Middle East such as Syria and Iran.

From President Barack Obama’s 2012 red line on chemical weapons use by the Syrian government to President Trump’s recent vow to crush Iran in retaliation for any attacks on U.S. military assets, such declarations often lack teeth and seem to be losing their power as instruments of intimidation on the world stage.

Foreign policy specialists and military insiders say red lines come with a host of major problems. Some U.S. adversaries feel compelled to test a president’s resolve and make a calculated gamble that Washington won’t follow through on its threats. Such a strategy, analysts say, can drain the U.S. of credibility among its allies and its adversaries.

Perhaps the greatest harm from a red line awaits the president who draws it. In certain domestic political environments, such as Mr. Obama’s 2012 Syria chemical weapons crisis, opponents can effectively cast a commander in chief as weak.

Mr. Trump seems to have avoided that fate because neither Republicans nor Democrats are eager to wage full-scale war with Iran. His comments last week, however, still opened the door to criticism at home and abroad, and analysts say the president committed an unforced error by publicly laying down the marker.

“The main reason they’re problematic, to me, is they force or create domestic political pressure on presidents to do the stuff that maybe they don’t want to do,” said Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at the think tank Defense Priorities, which advocates for a more restrained U.S. foreign policy.

Trump saying that didn’t lead him to a fiery response to Iran’s missile attack, but it could have led to a lot of pressure on him to do that,” Mr. Friedman said. “It does create pressure to do dumb things you’re not prepared to do. It would have been better if Trump hadn’t said that. It would have been better if he hadn’t made various threats.”

After the U.S. launched a missile strike this month that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, the Trump administration braced for an Iranian response, including the targeting of American military bases in Iraq. Mr. Trump quickly drew his red line and issued a clear, unmistakable warning.

“These Media Posts will serve as notification to the United States Congress that should Iran strike any U.S. person or target, the United States will quickly & fully strike back, & perhaps in a disproportionate manner,” the president tweeted Jan. 5. “Such legal notice is not required, but is given nevertheless!”

Days later, Iran fired ballistic missiles at two U.S. military facilities in Iraq. No Americans were killed or wounded in the attack. Mr. Trump quickly took to Twitter to declare “All is well,” and both countries seemed to embrace de-escalation and made the calculated decision to pull back from the brink of total war.

In the end, Mr. Trump’s public threat to Iran seems to have been more an example of tough talk on Twitter than actual U.S. policy.

Although the president’s warning focused on the mere targeting of military bases, analysts said, evidence clearly indicates that the true red line lies with the deaths of Americans at the hands of Iran or its proxies.

Top administration officials all but confirmed that Sunday.

“If there are folks out there planning to kill, maim or harm Americans, that’s a red line for us and you’ve got to be very careful,” White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Indeed, the most recent chapter of the U.S.-Iran conflict began last month when Iran-backed militias in Iraq attacked a U.S. compound and killed an American contractor.

That incident led the U.S. to carry out airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and Syria. Such American retaliation did not come to pass after other instances in which Iran took provocative action but did not kill anyone.

“It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye,” said James Carafano, a leading national security and foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “I think Trump’s position has basically been, ‘Look, you’re going to do these things. I understand that. I’ll counter them. I understand that. But if you kill Americans, that’s a different game.’

“I had zero expectation Trump was going to kill a bunch of people because [Iran] shot down a drone” last summer over the Strait of Hormuz, Mr. Carafano said. “I had zero expectation Trump was going to kill a bunch of people because they burned a bunch of Saudi oil fields. But when they weaponized the militias and they’re actively trying to kill Americans in Iraq and go into the [U.S.] Embassy, I didn’t see Trump standing by for that.”

Still, the implementation of a specific red line can create more problems. In the case of Iran, drawing a red line at the death of American personnel or attacks on U.S. bases could suggest to Tehran that other provocations will be allowed to proceed unchecked.

In certain instances, specialists say, countries could view the red line as something of a dare and may feel compelled to take the very action they have been warned against.

Such a scenario played out after Mr. Obama declared that the U.S. would not allow Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government to use chemical weapons in that country’s civil war. By most accounts, Mr. Obama’s declaration was not a carefully planned policy but more of an off-the-cuff comment that subsequently put Washington in a bind.

“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Mr. Obama said in a 2012 White House news conference. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of weapons moving around or being utilized.

“That would change my calculus,” he said.

It’s not entirely clear whether Syrian leaders simply didn’t believe the red line would be enforced or whether they wanted to publicly dare Washington to intervene, but Mr. Assad’s troops went ahead with a brutal chemical weapons attack that shocked the world and forced the White House to weigh serious responses.

In the end, the Obama administration didn’t strike Syrian government troops but instead brokered a deal in which Mr. Assad agreed to give up his chemical weapons stockpiles. Years later, however, his forces again employed chemical weapons, suggesting the deal was not effective.

Some analysts say Mr. Obama’s red line is a classic example of the dangers of issuing a threat without a full commitment to it or a warning that may not be as clear as hoped.

“There’s a rule that says never take a hostage you’re not willing to shoot,” Mr. Carafano said. “A red line is meant to be a deterrent. … Well, deterrence is always a chancy business. It not only requires you send a message; it requires the other guy to interpret that message in a way you want him to.”

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