While everyone debates exactly which way to dive into the quagmire that is Syria, one phrase has come to define international discussion: “red line.” Though he in no way patented the phrase, it was brought to prominence in the Syrian debate in an August 2012 speech by President Barack Obama (and, interestingly, in the 2012 presidential debates). Since then, nearly every take on the issue, from harsh criticism of the United States' alleged plans to intervene to full-throated support for a military strike, has listed or mocked the “red line” wording used by the president. The problem with this is that red lines exist everywhere, everyone interprets them differently, and nobody actually has the power to assert what the lines mean in reality.
By August 2012, the Syrian army had, for the first time, faced what could be called an organized resistance in Syria. As a result, the conflict, which until then seemed to be too unclear to judge, became a “civil war.” Of course, this immediately raised the question of international intervention. As the greatest military force (or bully) in the world, the United States' response set the tone for an international reaction. President Obama gave a statement on the issue that month in which he said: “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 chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Of note here are two words: “calculus” and “equation.” Obama's remark never suggests explicitly that the United States, or even the international community, has a position on chemical weapons use. In fact, the United States knew about and at times supported the use of tear and mustard gas, as well as 2013’s resurgent sarin gas, in Iraq in 1983. Instead, the terms at play, the “math” of the situation, was the crux of Obama's argument: things would have to be reconsidered when evidence of that level of warfare was found. International law, after all, is nothing if not flexible.
Fast forward to exactly one year later: Syria is a hotbed of sectarian warfare, bringing the Syrian Army, rebel groups, jihadists, and a plethora of ideologies into the conflict. Thrown into the mix are chemical weapons, with the source still contested, and the “red line” has been crossed. This, of course, sparks a crisis itself: What did President Obama say? That depends entirely on the reading of his comment in August 2012, a remark that probably haunts dreams in the White House every night.
Among the range of reactions to President Obama's call for greater involvement in Syria, the common denominator was “red line.” Those critical of the president reacted by making light of the ever-shifting red line, a “recalculation” that each time allowed for more abuses. On the other side were those who interpreted his quotation as stated, that a “red line” existed only as a variable, not a hard standard.
Responses of note include former governor Sarah Palin, who said, “Bottom line is that this is about President Obama saving political face because of his “red line” promise regarding chemical weapons." Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said, “Now, some have tried to suggest that the debate we're having today is about President Obama's red line. I could not more forcefully state that is just plain and simply wrong. This debate is about the world's red line. It's about humanity's red line. And it's a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”And finally, a quip from Lebanon’s Al-Manar TV: “Before we talk about this and about the Geneva conference and the red lines that Syria has drawn…"
The lines, to quote Robin Thicke, are indeed “blurred.” The sheer volume of ineffective, disingenuous argument over the phrasing used by the president a full year before the crisis reached a chemical phase is as absurd in practice as reopening the Clinton-era impeachment debates. We all know the realities and the actual “lines” of international conflict and have, realistically, a set range of actions to execute. For some, like Canada, this is an intense focus on humanitarian aid. For Russia, this is found in playing out latent Cold War scenarios and defending a warm-water port through external negotiations with Syria. For this United States, the fate is worse: The country has become responsible for everything. Inaction is a failure, any response can and will be deemed incorrect or ineffective by X political group, and military force will be humored, but categorically opposed by foreign allies and “adversaries.” And sitting firmly in the middle of all of this is a tiny little red line, drawn so far out of context and reality that few can even name its source anymore.
Perhaps the best way to shift the world towards meaningful action is to stop focusing on the wording of a single statement, especially to the bizarre extent done by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. For now, those “red lines” are painted in a box around Syria by the countries and actors tasked with protecting peace, a reminder of how ego, power, and economics can fundamentally blind even the most powerful nation in the world.