A Tale Of Two Red Lines

Let’s get this out of the way first: President Donald Trump didn’t actually say the words “red line.” In fact, he, his National Security Advisor, and his Secretary of State say so many different things that it can be hard to tell whether there are red lines, let alone where they are.

In August 2012, President Barack Obama explicitly laid down a red line to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria: Move chemical weapons around, and we will strike. A few days later, Assad brutally killed over a thousand people in Ghouta with sarin. Congress and allied nations were reluctant to back a military strike in response. But then Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered another response: Syria would join the Chemical Weapons Convention and give up its stock of chemical weapons and the means to make more.

It might seem that disarming Syria of chemical weapons was an appropriate punishment for their use after an ulitmatum was issued. No longer would they have that set of tactics available. The benefit to the rest of the world is obvious – ending that form of brutality and the threat to other nations in the region. Missile strikes could never have done that.

Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which limited Iran’s nuclear program to a greater degree than for other signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He then imposed additional economic sanctions on Iran, in contravention of what had been agreed. A number of small provocations then ensued, and Trump and his advisors threatened war, only to rescind the threat at the last minute. This action is being compared broadly to the 2012 actions.

Let’s look at the comparison in more detail.

In August 2012, a civil war was in progress in Syria. The United States was involved, but not as a primary actor.

The recent provocations against ships have been relatively small and ineffective. They were likely carried out by Iran or its proxies, but the evidence made public is less than conclusive. A military attack on Iran would be disproportionate.

Obama’s clearly stated objective was to end Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. A military strike would not have ended that capability, but would have limited it.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has presented to Iran a list of 12 demands to Iran that no country could accede to, short of defeat in war. Trump has said that all he wants is for Iran not to build nuclear weapons. It is not clear how a limited strike against Iran would further these demands.

When presented with an alternative to military action that would be more effective in reaching his objective, Obama changed direction.

Trump and his aides have presented four or five explanations for his change of direction. We have no way of knowing the truth.

Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was mostly removed and the ability to make more curtailed. Assad seems to have retained a small amount of sarin, which he has used in attacks since the disarmament. He has also used chlorine, a dual-use chemical that is regulated differently. Equivalent attacks with sarin would have been much more deadly.

It’s too soon to judge the effect of Trump’s action.

Obama was excoriated for not holding to his red line. Much of the US foreign policy establishment puts great stock in military action and was disappointed that Obama chose chemical weapons disarmament over missile strikes. The commentary on Trump’s action has been much more moderate, but there is some warning about threats and confidence. For example,

Many reasons are possible for the more moderate response. Perhaps we have become accustomed to Trump’s bluster without followthrough. Perhaps the situations are different enough that the response is justified. And perhaps Obama, by taking a more effective and peaceful route, broke the attraction of violence.


Cross-posted at Balloon Juice.

One comment

  1. Edward Charles Kokkelenberg · July 4, 2019

    Washington Post recent headline
    After tanker attack, Trump insists ‘Iran did do it,’ rejecting denials

    President Trump cited a video released by the U.S. military that it said showed Iranian vessels retrieving a mine from one of the damaged ships.
    Trump therefore claims Iran attacked the tanker Front Altair. When is removing a mine considered an attack?
    The US attacked Spain for the sinking of the Maine in Havana Harbor, but it turned out that the fatal explosion was caused by coal dust.
    The Nazi 1939 invasion of Poland which started WW 2 in Europe, was a German retaliation for a faked Polish attack on Germany.
    The Tonkin Gulf Resolution which allowed the US administration to escalate the Vietnam war was also faked.
    History is replete with fake attacks by some putative enemy that were used as a causa bello.
    Today we have the Front Altair tanker and the Kokuka Courageous chemical ship attacks. But this tanker is Flagged in the Marshall Islands. It is carrying a Norwegian cargo, loaded in Oman, and destined for the Port of Kaohsiung in Taiwan. After the so-called incident, this tanker is now underway at a slow speed headed to Dubai. The second, smaller ship, is the Chemical Tanker Kokuka Courageous, flagged in Panama, owned by a Japanese firm, and destined for Singapore, has been diverted to Khorfakkan in but at preset is in the UAE anchorage at Fujairah. It too is able to move on its own.
    Most European countries and Japan dispute the Trumpian version. Newsweek reports: “Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Friday cast doubt on evidence that the U.S. government claims is proof that Iran was behind an attack this week on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.”
    The news and photos so far suggest some questions:
    1 Why would the US get involved in these two ships that have no ties to the US?
    2 Why would anyone attack two relatively small ships when there are tankers more than twice the size of these two together that ply the Straits of Hormoz daily and in large numbers?
    3 Why attack them with such a small weapon so that a fire ensues but the ship does not appear to be fatally damaged?
    4 Why would an Iranian boat spray water in an attempt to fight the fire on one of the ships?
    5 Why would the so-called mines be placed so high on the hull thus assuring minimal below the water line damage which subsequent days have shown as the case?
    6 Why would the owner of the chemical tanker, Japan, dispute the Trumpian version?
    7 How is it that the Iranians did not attack the ships with naval missiles any one of which would have totally destroyed the targets (Iran has at least ten different designs of missiles in their armory)?

    The Trump administration, not noted for its veracity, is now beating the drum for military action. You can probably guess why, but one possible reason is the war takes our mind off of the possible impeachment of the president or the fact that the Government is about to shut down again.
    There are insurance companies and Marine accident agencies that are competent to ascertain what is afoot. The nations that flag a vessel are responsible to take a lead in such investigations, and in this case, Marine Accident Investigators Meeting in the Asia Region is another.
    Also, OPEC and the UN may well be involved.
    Trump should back off; we do not have a dog in this fight.


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