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Rethinking ‘Red Lines’


There are widespread reports circulating in the media that President Obama had not fully appreciated the political consequences of responding to a question at an August press conference that asked about the consequences of a possible future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Obama replied that such a use, should it occur, would be to cross ‘a red line.’ Such an assertion was widely understood to be a threat by Obama either to launch air strikes or to provide rebel forces with major direct military assistance, including weaponry. There have been sketchy reports that Syria did make some use chemical weapons, as well as allegations that the reported use was ‘a false flag’ operation, designed to call Obama’s bluff. As the New York Times notes in a frontpage story on May 7th, Obama “finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Such a policy dilemma raised tactical issues for the U.S. Government about how to intervene in the Syrian civil war without risking a costly and uncertain involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Not responding also raises delicate questions of presidential leadership in a highly polarized domestic political atmosphere, already shamelessly exploited by belligerent Republican lawmakers backed by a feverish media that always seem to be pushing Obama to pursue a more muscular foreign policy in support of alleged America’s global interests, as if hard power geopolitics still is the key to global security.

American foreign policy, is a more fundamental red line that the United States at another time and place took the lead in formulating—namely, the unconditional prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack. This prohibition was the core idea embodied in the United Nations Charter, embedded in contemporary international law, and it was also a natural sequel to the prosecution and punishment of surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II for their commission of Crimes against Peace, which was the international crime associated with engaging in aggressive warfare.  The only lawful exception to this prohibition was a use of force consistent with the terms of a prior authorization given by the UN Security Council. The key hope for world peace was this consensus among the winners in World War II that in the future aggressive war and any acquisition of territory by force, even acquired in the exercise of self-defense, must be outlawed without exceptions. Such authorizations by the Security Council were obtained by the West in the Gulf War of 1991 and again in the NATO Libya War of 2011, but in each instance the actual undertaking became controversial as a result of the scope and intensity of the military operations far exceeding the UN mandate. As a consequence, there was a loss of trust on the part of China and Russia in endorsing limited uses of force under UN auspices, which became evident in the course of the gridlocked debate about what to do in response to the regionally dangerous violence in Syria that combined internal strife with external proxy involvements threatening the expansion of the war zone in a variety of menacing ways.

covert interventions (e.g. Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954). This pattern of evasion was a prominent feature of the Cold War as both sides intervened in foreign states or in their respective spheres of influence (e.g. South Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan) to uphold by force of arms an ideological alignment with one or the other superpower. Such uses of international force by rival superpowers without engaging the UN framework definitely eroded the authority of the anti-aggression red line and its stature in international law, but it did not lead political actors to call for its abandonment in view of the behavior of leading states. It is true that some anti-legalist international law specialists who subscribed to a realist worldview felt that patterns of state practice overrode the claims of international law and the UN Charter, and that, in effect, the red line had been erased, at least for the top tier of sovereign states. Although not made explicit, the American position was increasingly exhibiting the psychological characteristics of geopolitical bipolarity: no red line for American foreign policy, while maintaining a bright red line for others, especially for adversary states.

invasion and occupation of Iraq, the UN is far from dead as an Organization in its manifold efforts to address the concerns of the world, and even its red line, although covered with dust, has not yet been erased. Maybe we should really thank God that the collective global consciousness is so forgetful!

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>And yet, when reflecting on intervening in Syria or resort to a military option in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is silent about the relevance of international law, although neither instance of contemplated uses of force can be remotely claimed to be justified as either individual or collective self-defense. And for obvious reasons, there is also no mention of circumventing the red line by failing to seek authorization for a contemplated used of force from the Security Council. Presumably since approval would not be forthcoming due to the anticipated opposition of Russia and China it was not even worth considering as a public tactic. It is true that the Clinton presidency in participating via NATO in the Kosovo War proceeded also to embark on a non-defensive war without seeking prior authorization for somewhat similar reasons as any resolution on Kosovo proposing use of force was sure to be vetoed by Russia and China. The Kosovo precedent generated worries about non-defensive military undertakings lacking a legal foundation. These were offset in the belief that a humanitarian catastrophe had been averted. The Kosovo undertaking was convincingly justified at the time on credible moral grounds of imminent genocide, on political grounds as enjoying support from almost all of Kosovo’s European neighbors, and on practical grounds as a military intervention that was feasible. In effect, the legitimacy of the intervention was allowed to offset its illegality. As it turned out the military undertaking and political follow up was more difficult than anticipated, but still achieved at a reasonable cost, within a relatively short period, and productive of zero casualties among the intervening forces.

line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-bidi-font-weight:bold”>Finally, it has been argued that the changing nature of conflict has made the red line embedded in the UN Charter obsolete or at least in need of a drastically modified interpretation.  The rationale for rethinking the Charter approach to the use of force is associated with the global security situation that has resulted from terrorist attacks since 9/11 leading to the global war on terror being waged on a battlefield without national limits and increasingly doing the killing via reliance on robotic warfare on the one side and very primitive forms of disruptive violence by political extremists on the other side. Traditional ideas of deterrence, containment, and territorial defense seem almost irrelevant in relation to global security regimes when the perceived assailants are individuals who cannot be deterred, and are operating in non-territorial networks and exhibiting a readiness to die to complete their mission. As matters are proceeding the policy about force is being formulated without bothering with the red lines of international law and the UN, regressively producing once again a world of unregulated sovereign states and extremist non-states essentially deciding on their own when war is permissible. The recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets is illustrative: unprovoked and non-defensive, yet eliciting scant criticism in the media or even commentary about the dangers of unilateralism with respect to uses of international force. Such normative chaos in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for eventual species suicide, an impression reinforced by the failure to take precautionary steps with respect to the menace of global warming. Never has the world more needed red lines that are drawn by major states, and upheld by them out of the realization that the national interest has also merged with the global interest. Arguably the red lines of the Charter need to be modified in light of the rise of non-state actors and the advent of non-territorial warfare, but such an undertaking is no where on the agenda of major states, and so the world drifts back to the pre-World War I era of unrestricted warfare, at least on the level of geopolitics.