Red Lines of Dubious Value – Mostly, Better Not Draw Them

I have used the expression ‘red line’ before in reference to defining constrained topics in media and political discourse in Morocco. That got me thinking about how often, aside from President Obama’s now infamous red line on chemical agent use by Syria, that red lines have influenced foreign policy, or not.

A quick Wikipedia search brought up a most interesting coincidence. The phrase first arose as a result of Western machinations in the Middle East after World War I. It first appeared in English in the “Red Line Agreement” of 1928 when the oil companies with the connivance of the governments of the UK, US, and France, were dividing up the last vestiges of the Ottoman Empire. “At the time of signature, the borders of the empire were not clear and to remedy the problem an Armenian businessman named Calouste Gulbenkian, took a red pencil to draw in an arbitrary manner the borders of the divided empire.”

This is the same Calouste Gulbenkian who is credited with opening up Iraqi oil fields to the West though his part ownership in a company he helped form called Royal Dutch Shell! As you would expect, the phrase caught on quickly and became part of the UN’s lexicon. Of course France has its own name for this concept, the “yellow line” (franchir la ligne jaune). I wonder if it has variants in China, Russia, and other hot spots?

But I digress. My favorite variation of this expression is President Bush 41’s statement addressing Saddam Hussein in August 1990 that the United States had “drawn a line in the sand” in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula to protect Saudi Arabia, free Kuwait, and maybe see Saddam on his way. Little thought was given by his speechwriters to the image of “lines in the sand” indicating nothing to people who see shifting sands, erasing lines, daily.

assadThen the now infamous “red line” by President Obama in what many consider a failed Syria policy regarding the use of chemical weapons by Syria, which Senator John McCain observed was “apparently written in disappearing ink,” due to the perception the red line had been crossed with no action.

In Geneva, we hear the Syrian government calling President Bashar’s future a “red line,” asserting that his fate should be decided by the people of Syria, without any intention, it seems, of saying how that should happen, or when, or who will participate.

Speaking of red lines, what about the curtailing of the use of barrel bombs on civilians; the targeting of hospitals and schools in Yemen and Syria; the wholesale destruction of religious and cultural heritage sites; and red lines around non-existent safe zones that have yet to materialize.

Invoking red lines does not prevent actions and activities that further undermine the stability and security of the MENA region. Who will draw the red lines for Iran’s increasingly belligerent behavior, echoing its counterpart in North Korea? What is the use of red lines when it comes to separating an increasingly belligerent Israeli government from stripping Palestinians of even more land and reducing their access to their own neighborhoods? Are there red lines limiting Palestinian attacks on Israeli citizens, regardless of their motivations?

With the useless use of “red line” as a concept and a reality, one could anticipate that the wordsmiths for the world’s leaders would try to move beyond rhetoric to focusing on sustainable solutions. But, to coin a phrase, “words speak louder than actions” in diplomacy surrounding issues in the MENA region, and possibly the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, and other examples where fatigue undermines resolve to engender order through resolution.

Although there is no strategic progress in more meaningful diplomatic discourse on the horizon, a good start would be to avoid provocative and vacuous rhetoric and admit that sometimes problems will not be resolved as easily as holding a referendum, or swapping notes, or drawing a red line.

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