A Tale of Two Red Lines


The president of the United States of America has the authority to end civilized life on this planet. It is impossible to understate this responsibility. Although their domestic power is limited, American presidents have near-limitless unchecked power to enact change overseas and around the world. For reasons both historical and geopolitical, the United States of America has cemented itself as the leader of the global order. Every nation and state in the world must position itself and its interests in relation to American foreign policy. With this power, the president’s words are synonymous with action. When America speaks, the world responds. The president’s actions and speech can change the international order forever. Therefore, it is imperative that American presidents take this responsibility seriously. America must remain steadfast and predictable. American policy must be transparent and American leaders must keep their word when making statements of international importance. In the past five years, America has failed at least twice in this central responsibility. Both of these failures involved red lines in Syria. 

“Big nations don’t bluff”

In the summer of 2012, President Barack Obama announced a new red line for American intervention in the deadly Syrian civil war. America would not tolerant any use of chemical weapons by the President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Any violation of this line would result in American punitive action. Given Obama’s skepticism of American intervention in Middle Eastern conflicts, the change in policy came as a shock—even to many of the president’s own staff. Not even Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was told of the new policy prior to the president’s announcement. Before the new policy became public, Vice President Joe Biden reportedly urged the president not to declare the red line—fearing a future need to enforce it. However, the president held firm in his decision to establish a new red line policy. In summer 2012, the president announced that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would change America’s “calculus.” Shortly after, he asserted that crossing this red line would be a “tragic mistake.” “There will be consequences,” the president declared. Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton then informed reporters that America would “take action” against the Assad regime if this red line is crossed.

Then, the Syrian government crossed this line.

In August 2013, Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapon attack in Ghouta, Syria—killing over 1,000 people, including hundreds of children. The response suggested by the American foreign policy establishment was nearly unanimous: intervention was imperative. America had spoken, and she needed to keep her word. Shortly after the attack, Secretary of State John Kerry remarked that America’s response to Syria’s violation of the red line was “directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something.” According to Kerry, “[Other countries] are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk.” The world was indeed watching, and unfortunately, Syria did indeed “get away with it.”

After the attack, the Obama administration struggled to develop a response to Syria’s crimes. It was clear that the president had not expected, nor prepared for, his red line to be crossed. Jeffrey Goldberg writes of this moment in his article “The Obama Doctrine” for The Atlantic: “Assad, it seemed, had succeeded in pushing the president to a place he never thought he would have to go.” Although the president’s national security staff was adamantly in favor of intervention, Obama rejected the idea—declaring that a direct intervention would be “an escalation.” He contemplated arming anti-Assad rebels in retaliation, but later dismissed the idea. As Mr. Kerry had declared, American credibility was at stake. However, the president decided against a use of force. A military intervention, as suggested by the introduction of a red line to begin with, was off the table. 

When the foreign policy establishment insisted on a military intervention, the president responded with skepticism. “Dropping bombs on someone to prove that you’re willing to drop bombs on someone is just about the worst reason to use force,” the president told Mr. Goldberg for The Atlantic. However, the Vice President was not skeptical. “Big nations don’t bluff,” Mr. Biden argued in the White House. The president’s staff and American allies around the world believed the red line was a threat of force. To back down now would drain American credibility. Obama felt pressured to fulfill the intent of his red line. According to Mr. Goldberg, “the president had come to believe that he was walking into a trap—one laid both by allies and by adversaries, and by conventional expectations of what an American president is supposed to do.” However, the trap was one of Obama’s own creation. If the president never intended to use force, then he should never have established a red line leading his staff and American allies to rely on America’s intervention. 

When allies and staff learned of the president's decision to stand down, the White House was flooded with criticism and discontent. John Kerry reportedly told a friend, “I just got fucked over.” In the midst of criticism, Obama decided to recuse responsibility entirely for the controversial decision.

The president asked Congress for an authorization of force to enforce the red line—knowing that the republican-controlled legislature was unilaterally opposed to any white house request. Both Obama and Biden insisted this move was to maintain separation of powers. However, the president did not request special authorization form congress to launch airstrikes in Libya years before. There is no doubt that the congressional request to enforce his Syria red line allowed Obama to purge his responsibility while providing a scapegoat when the request was inevitably ignored. However, another solution presented itself at the G20 summit.

Several days after the chemical attack, Obama convened with Russian President, and Assad regime ally, Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg for the G20 summit. After discussing the issue there, the heads of state developed a joint program to remove Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons. President Putin was eager to expand his geopolitical influence in the Middle East while also ensuring his ally, President Assad, remains in dictatorial power. Obama was eager for a non-punitive response void of any responsibility for military intervention. Although Obama touted the plan as a success, very little good came from it. In fact, the cons greatly outweighed the pros. A homicidal dictator reminded in power to kill more civilians. The Russian autocracy expanded its power and influence into the most volatile region in the world. The Assad regime went on to use chemical weapons again just four years later. Most importantly, American credibility was severely tainted. America had gone back on its word. The president had bluffed. There was no red line after all.

“Stay the hell out of Syria”

Three years later, Donald Trump campaigned for president with a promise to restore American credibility around the world. Before his election, Trump accused the United States of being “weak and ineffective,” “a bunch of patsies,” and “stupid.” “America doesn’t win anymore,” he said, “The world is laughing at us.” Trump assured the American people that if he were president, all of that would change. He would “make America great again.” However, every aspect of Trump’s foreign policy before and since his inauguration betrays this promise. 

Trump has repeatedly questioned the usefulness of American-led treaty agreements, particularly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—even calling the organization “obsolete.” Trump also proclaimed that his administration may not honor defense agreements with allies—betraying decades of American promise and leadership. During an interview with The New York Times, Trump was asked if his administration would defend other NATO states from Russian attack—as required in the NATO treaty that America signed. Trump refused to answer the question multiple times. When asked specifically about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Trump stated that his administration would recognize the invaded region of Ukraine as Russian territory—condoning an illegal invasion by an American adversary.

Regarding Syria, Trump campaigned for nonintervention. After the 2013 chemical attack in Syria, Trump advocated that America “stay the hell out of Syria”—insisting that Obama should not enforce the 2013 red line. In fact, Trump regularly promised his administration would stay completely out of foreign conflicts. He even criticized his campaign opponent Hillary Clinton for her advocacy for Syrian intervention. “You're going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton,” Trump told Reuters during the campaign. After his inauguration, President Trump’s administration echoed these positions on the Syrian civil war. In March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the conflict in Syria “will be decided by the Syrian people.” In the same month, American Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said, “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.” The Trump administration had signaled to Bashar al-Assad that the United States will not intervene in his homicidal war. In other words, there would be no red line.

Believing the American president, Bashar al-Assad launched yet another chemical attack in April 2017—only five days after the Trump administration’s public comments regarding non-intervention in the Syrian war. 

Shortly after the chemical attack in Syria, members of the Trump administration began signaling a sudden and significant shift in Syria policy. In a reversal from his comments the previous week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that there should be “no role for [Bashar al-Assad to govern the Syrian people.” Likewise, Trump told a group of reporters shortly after the attack that “something should happen” in response to the Syrian regime’s chemical attack.

Two days after the chemical attack in Syria, Trump ordered the bombing of Syrian military targets

During a White House press briefing four days after the bombing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether the president’s bombing order was the result of a red line being crossed.“Is the red line for this White House chemical warfare?” a reporter asked. “There are a number of lines that were crossed last week,” Sean Spicer responded.

But were there? How could anyone have known?

According to the Trump administration, there were multiple red lines regarding Syria that the Assad regime crossed. However, Trump has consistently signaled that red lines would not and do not exist in his administration—whether it’s Syria, NATO, or Ukraine. Trump has advertised an administration withdrawn from the conflicts of the world with a renewed domestic priority—“America first.” 

Since the bombing, the Trump administration has not yet announced any new policies regarding the Syrian civil war, the brutal Assad regime, or the future use of chemical weapons. In fact, the entire subject has largely been forgotten by the administration since the publicity of the bombing. Days later, the bombed airfields were reportedly fully functional again. The whereabouts of any red lines remain unknown.

Two Red Lines

Obama continues to look back fondly on his decision not to enforce his red line. “I’m very proud of this moment,” he told Jeffrey Goldberg last year, “the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far.” 

In an interview with CBS this month, Vice President Mike Pence declared that Trump had “restored credibility of American power.” Unfortunately, this is false. The current administration’s ongoing promises of American non-leadership accompanied by bursts of shortsighted military flexing is an unstable combination.

Two red lines drawn. Two red lines crossed. Both President Trump and President Obama have used red lines—either fake or hidden—to damage American credibility around the world. This repeated loss of credibility continues to make diplomacy harder, alliances weaker, and conflict more likely.

International diplomacy is made possible only by the credible threat of force and the reliable leadership of the United States. When America bluffs, adversaries are empowered. Likewise, when America lies about foreign policy, it can lead to easily avoidable conflict. Mere words can cause chaos and conflict In an international order held together by American force and promise. If a president does not intend to use force, then a red line should not be established. If a president has established a red line, it must be advertised to the world. Anything else is reckless.

Brandon Clarkson is the Editor in Chief of Sojourn Review. You can follow him on Twitter here.