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 have limited that capability, but would not have ended 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 Nuclear Diner.






54 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    Many reasons are possible for the more moderate response. Perhaps we have become accustomed to Trump’s bluster without followthrough.

    I blame Obama for having too much credibility.

  2. 2

    […] Cross-posted at Balloon Juice. […]

  3. 3
    japa21 says:

    One thing we be pretty sure of is that Trump’s explanation of what happened leading up to the decision not to go through with a military response is a lie.

    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.

    A lot of the US foreign policy establishment puts much more stock in using military force as a last resort.

  4. 4
    Mike in NC says:

    Fat Bastard really is stuck in the 1980s it seems. More sanctions on Iran and I read he’s making matters worse with Cuba, too. It’s only a matter of time until he shuts down the US embassy in Havana (which will be reopened once we shitcan and replace the buffoon).

  5. 5
    burnspbesq says:

    Trump does things well about as often as the Orioles go on eight-game winning streaks.

  6. 6
    bjacques says:

    As I recall, Obama’s military response depended on support from the UK. Parliament voted it down.

  7. 7

    @japa21:

    A lot of the US foreign policy establishment puts much more stock in using military force as a last first resort.

    FTFY

  8. 8

    @Baud: That was one of the things I thought about saying in the last paragraph.

  9. 9
    The Moar You Know says:

    Fat, depressed, old, dressed like he shops at Goodwill. Our best people?

    That’s a hell of a picture. Sad Donnie.

  10. 10

    @bjacques: Several things were happening simultaneously. I noted that allies were not supportive.

  11. 11
    Baud says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    You did. My comment was redundant.

  12. 12
    Death Panel Truck says:

    Trump canceled the Iran strike because Vlad called and told him to knock that shit off.

    The president of the United States takes marching orders from the Kremlin. Never thought I’d ever say those words in my lifetime.

  13. 13
    japa21 says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: My point is that while you are correct in your first statement, there is a lot of the establishment who disagree and believe force should only be used when all else fails. It’s just that the louder group is the former and not the latter. Or should I say the former group gets more play in the media than the latter group.

  14. 14
    rikyrah says:

    @Death Panel Truck:

    Trump canceled the Iran strike because Vlad called and told him to knock that shit off.

    THAT is the bottom line.

  15. 15
    TenguPhule says:

    Perhaps we have become accustomed to Trump’s bluster without followthrough.

    I don’t want whatever it is you’re smoking. //

  16. 16
    TenguPhule says:

    @bjacques:

    As I recall, Obama’s military response depended on support from the UK. Parliament voted it down.

    Shit, our own fucking Senate wouldn’t support it either.

  17. 17
    kindness says:

    Come on now! Trump pulled back from attacking Iran because Putin told him to. There is no other explaination. Putin owns Trump.

  18. 18
    patrick II says:

    Obama was excoriated for not holding to his red line.

    I know you can’t explain the whole thing every time you write about this, but taking this out of context of the Republican Congress’s refusal to back Obama on the bombing leaves a false impression.

    Like many things during the Obama administration, although an official vote was not taken, the Republican Congress refused to approve bombing of Syria, and then blamed Obama for not bombing Syria.

    I do not know if bombing Syria would have made any difference, but Obama was going to bomb Syria and Republican duplicity makes it clear that they would harm the country if they could blame Obama.

  19. 19
    TenguPhule says:

    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.

    I hate that even intelligent people are falling for the old “Sure the information is coming from complete liars, but where there’s smoke it must be Iran’s fire!”

    JFC, did we not learn anything from the last dozen or so times of “Iran is on the cusp of nuclear weapons!”? Don’t imply its Iran without a lot better evidence from more trustworthy sources.

  20. 20

    @japa21: Yes, there are a significant number who dissent from force as the first option. But the latter have been ascendant for some time and were extremely loud in response to Obama’s actions. Maybe our foreign policy community is learning.

  21. 21

    @TenguPhule: I’m basing that judgment on a number of things beyond the evidence offered. Iran has reason to show the US that its patience is limited. The limpet mines are the kind of thing it might do. And they admitted shooting down the drone. It’s possible that reality overlaps with the administration’s fantasies at times.

    And it doesn’t matter at all for the point of my post.

  22. 22

    @patrick II: I don’t disagree. I mentally factored that in as noise and was referring more to the foreign policy commentariat’s almost universal condemnation of Obama’s actions. I was convinced at the time and remain convinced that trading a largely symbolic military action for peacefully attaining one’s objectives was the smartest thing to do.

  23. 23
    Hoodie says:

    @kindness: More likely it was Tucker Carlson telling him that it would kill his popularity with his base, which may be true as most people, even on the right, do not give a shit about Iran, the Gulf States and the Middle East in general (only evangelicals seem to care about Israel). Trump only thinks about his TV ratings, and tends to rely on whichever “advisor” spoke to him last. He never liked Bolton anyway. I wonder if Trump’s relationship with Putin could be better characterized by Trump’s belief that Putin is some sort of savant (“he’s rich, he must be smart!”), rather than directly taking orders from him. Trump really likes him some dictators.

  24. 24
    BigJimSlade says:

    I take the differing responses to the actions of Obama and tRump to be garden-variety holding democrats and republicans to different standards.

  25. 25
    TenguPhule says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    I’m basing that judgment on a number of things beyond the evidence offered. Iran has reason to show the US that its patience is limited. The limpet mines are the kind of thing it might do. And they admitted shooting down the drone.

    I’ll leave it to the lawyers here to point out what’s wrong with your conclusion.

  26. 26
  27. 27
    Mandalay says:

    @TenguPhule:

    Don’t imply its Iran without a lot better evidence from more trustworthy sources.

    This a thousand times over.

    Also don’t conflate different potential sources; “They were likely carried out by Iran or its proxies….” is really sloppy wording.

    I can say They were likely carried out by Norway, Iran or its proxies….” and it’s no less true a claim, but it neatly bundles an innocent party into an accusation. Make case that it might have been Iran, and make the case that it might have been a proxy, but don’t casually lump them together, suggesting that Iran’s proxies invariably blindly follow orders issued in Teheran.

    Evidence that it wasn’t Iran that is ignored in the OP. And the notion that Iran did anything wrong by destroying a drone which was either in – or very damn close – to Iranian airspace is just mind boggling. Imagine the response if Iran had done the same thing over American airspace.

    It’s obvious to all but the wilfully blind that the Trump Administration is doing all it can to goad Iran into a war by any means possible, and “both-sides” analysis like this on BJ are missing the forest for the trees.

  28. 28
    japa21 says:

    @TenguPhule: It should be pointed out that Cheryl did not say that Iran definitely did anything but shoot down the drone. In fact, she said it might not have been Iran but the weight of evidence does point to Iran. Don’t say she made a conclusion she didn’t make.

  29. 29

    @Mandalay: Would you like to present the evidence that it wasn’t Iran? I don’t see anything beyond your assertion.

    Thanks, japa21. Would that everyone would actually read the OP.

  30. 30
    Mandalay says:

    Meanwhile, a dumbfuck CNN host glibly just asked a guest: “Will Iran continue to be provocative?“, as though what’s happening is entirely the fault of Iran.

    We don’t need Pravda or FoxNews to force feed us bullshit about Iran. The position of the Trump Administration is now being openly embraced by much of the media.

  31. 31
    TenguPhule says:

    @japa21:

    In fact, she said it might not have been Iran but the weight of evidence does point to Iran. Don’t say she made a conclusion she didn’t make.

    You are wrong.

    Read it again.

    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.

    And then reread this again.

    Iran has reason to show the US that its patience is limited. The limpet mines are the kind of thing it might do.

  32. 32
    TenguPhule says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Would you like to present the evidence that it wasn’t Iran?

    Now you’re getting defensive and backing up into “I want you to prove a negative” territory.

  33. 33
    Mandalay says:

    Would you like to present the evidence that it wasn’t Iran?

    Well there’s this:

    The owner of a Japanese tanker attacked in the Gulf of Oman offered a different account Friday of the nature of the attack than that provided by the United States.
    Yutaka Katada, president of the Kokuka Sangyo shipping company, said the Filipino crew of the Kokuka Courageous tanker thought their vessel was hit by flying objects rather than a mine.
    “The crew are saying it was hit with a flying object. They say something came flying toward them, then there was an explosion, then there was a hole in the vessel,” he told reporters. “Then some crew witnessed a second shot….”

    Company officials said Thursday that the ship was hit on the port side, but photos released by the United States showed damage and a suspected mine on the starboard side.

    That doesn’t mean it definitely wasn’t Iran, but it certainly means that you should be more open minded about what actually happened, and question who was responsible for the attacks, especially given the ongoing evasiveness of the Trump Administration on the details of the tanker attacks and the destruction of the drone.

  34. 34

    Tengu Phule, why do you continue to be such an asshole? Or troll?

  35. 35
    japa21 says:

    @TenguPhule: Might do and did are two different things. You are starting to get tiresome.

  36. 36

    @Mandalay: I’ll make my own judgments, thank you very much.

    We know that Trump and his toadies lie. But that doesn’t mean that Iran couldn’t have done it, which seems to be what you are arguing.

    In any case, that’s not the point of the OP, and the point of the OP doesn’t rest on Iranian culpability or not. Read it again and enjoy!

  37. 37
    Mandalay says:

    @Cheryl Rofer:

    Unfortunately, the comments have been taken over by trolls. I’m outa here.

    Heh. Your post had more holes than a sieve, and when you get called on it you claim that regular posters here are trolls and you run away.

    Classy.

  38. 38

    @Mandalay: Did you read the OP, or just the parts you wanted to fight with?

  39. 39
    japa21 says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: It seems like there are at least two people that are insisting, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you are claiming it was Iran and nobody else, even though you are obviously not saying that.
    But that happens a lot here and elsewhere. Even I am guilty of that sin occasionally.

  40. 40
    chopper says:

    @Hoodie:

    More likely it was Tucker Carlson telling him that it would kill his popularity with his base, which may be true

    i find it hard to believe that trump’s mouthbreathing base would give a shit if he blew up a couple hundred iranian airmen. maybe the possibility of a spike in oil prices did the trick, but i dunno if Fucker mentioned that on his show.

  41. 41
    Archon says:

    Obviously Obama didn’t know that the right-wing and particularly elements of the left would downplay the use of chemical weapons in the name of not getting involved. I was even asked the morally dubious question by some lefties on what’s the difference between getting shot and, you know drowning in your own lung filled fluids from a chemical attack. As if it’s futile to have rules of warfare. Regardless of the moral and political dilemma I do believe the “redline” was the biggest mistake of Obama’s Presidency.

    If American military power along with clear “redlines” from the President of the United States is not a deterrence for something as awful as the use of chemical weapons from rogue actors then we really should pack it up and stop playing the world policeman.

  42. 42
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Mandalay:

    Let’s see. We can believe the judgment of Cheryl, a nuclear scientist with decades of experience in monitoring other countries’ weapons capabilities, or you, a random pseudonymous Internet commenter with a history of trolling. Hm. Tough decision there.

    I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that Iran would do a couple of low-risk, low-damage operations as a warning that the US really shouldn’t fuck with them. That’s what Cheryl seems to be saying — these could potentially have been warning shots by Iran. That would be another reason why the Trumpistas scrambled to back off after their initial chest-thumping.

    Iran could really fuck up the US and our regional allies if they chose to do so. They’re bigger than Iraq both geographically and population-wise, and they have a far more united population than Iraq did. They may have felt it was necessary to remind Bolton and Pompeo of that fact.

  43. 43
    Mnemosyne says:

    @japa21:

    The phrase that comes to my mind is “brushback pitch.” It’s what a baseball pitcher does when the batter crowds the plate to warn him to back off.

  44. 44
    Bill Arnold says:

    @japa21:
    Yes. Cheryl writes carefully, and is especially careful about speculation. Respect (for me at least) means paying close close attention to her writing.
    Anyway her post was about the red-line as a tactic, including the context of the major US provocations of withdrawal from the JCPOA and subsequent US acts of economic warfare.

    FWIW I’m still weighting false flag scenarios highly but Iran does have a history of provocations both direct and with proxies; this is among the Bayesian priors fueling suspicions, in this case against Iran.

  45. 45
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Bill Arnold:

    As I said with my baseball metaphor above, I think people are misconstruing what Cheryl said as her saying that the Iranians are provoking the US. I think there’s a good chance that they’re actually warning us off from taking more aggressive action that won’t end well for either of us.

    The actions of a provocation and a warning may be similar, but the intent is very different.

  46. 46
    Bill Arnold says:

    @Mnemosyne:
    We agree and yes I should have used warnings rather than provocations for the current Iranian actions, both definite (drone shoot-down) and uncertain, since Iran doesn’t want war.

  47. 47
    TenguPhule says:

    @Mnemosyne:

    I don’t think it’s beyond the realm of possibility that Iran would do a couple of low-risk, low-damage operations as a warning that the US really shouldn’t fuck with them. That’s what Cheryl seems to be saying — these could potentially have been warning shots by Iran.

    I would avoid prejudice against Iran given the absolutely untrustworthy sources that are involved. That’s my problem with Cheryl’s poor choice of words.

    The tanker attacks were stupid. Low risk operation? By involving a neutral third party’s ships as a warning shot against the USA? Are you kidding me? There are no upsides for Iran in doing that. If they wanted to make that kind of point they’d have hit something they could justify as being American related. They’re trying to win a public relations battle and the shipping attacks would only hurt them there if they get tied to it.

  48. 48
    J R in WV says:

    @Mandalay:

    Meanwhile, a dumbfuck CNN host glibly just asked a guest: “Will Iran continue to be provocative?“, as though what’s happening is entirely the fault of Iran.

    We don’t need Pravda or FoxNews to force feed us bullshit about Iran. The position of the Trump Administration is now being openly embraced by much of the media.

    CNN in parricular tends to support war, any war against any other combatant, as they can make mo money during combat operations, as many people tune in just to see the “fireworks” — remember the Shock and Awe prior to the Gulf War I invasion of Kuwait/Iraq? Weeks of flash boom bang, brought to you by CNN!

    Then Gulf War II — the G W Bush phoney war, same thing! Wolf Blitzer is the perfect name for a war-monger reporter!

    Others are bad, too, but no one has CNN beat for war drums in the newsroom.

  49. 49
    TenguPhule says:

    @Cheryl Rofer: Why do you always overreact when you’re wrong?

    You made a poor choice of words. You got called on it. Now you’re contorting yourself to avoid admitting that.

  50. 50
    TenguPhule says:

    @japa21:

    It seems like there are at least two people that are insisting, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that you are claiming it was Iran and nobody else,

    No, that would be the voices in your head telling you what you want to believe.

    What I’ve been saying repeatedly is that there’s no way to tell at this point because the sources are fucking untrustworthy.

    Its possible that it could be Iran, but saying things like

    They were likely carried out by Iran or its proxies

    is stupid. Because WE DON’T KNOW yet. That’s cable news Iraq War II level horseshit. And undermines Cheryl’s whole post because it damages her credibility when she makes that kind of unforced error.

  51. 51

    @TenguPhule: I said exactly what I intended. I explained why. You disagree. Let it go.

  52. 52
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Bill Arnold:

    Yep. The purpose of a brush-back is to warn someone off from being too aggressive, with the threat of worse action (a beanball) held in reserve.

    When it comes to interacting with the rest of the world, the Iranians seem to be pretty rational actors. It makes sense to me that they would do something to try and make the US back down.

  53. 53
    J R in WV says:

    @TenguPhule:

    Why do you always overreact when you’re wrong?

    You made a poor choice of words. You got called on it. Now you’re contorting yourself to avoid admitting that.

    No Tengu, you’re wrong. Cheryl said:

    “They were likely carried out by Iran or its proxies, but the evidence made public is less than conclusive.”

    Then she said:
    “The limpet mines are the kind of thing it might do.”

    None of that language is conclusive by any stretch of the imagination. So stop before you embarrass yourself more.

  54. 54
    John Cole says:

    @TenguPhule: Why are you being such an asshole about this? She clearly did not state that Iran was behind it. It’s been pointed out to you repeatedly, but you have dug in and queered the entire thread. Just stop it.

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