09/10/2013 11:02 am ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Syria's Second 'Red Line': 30 Years of Red Lines

This week Congress returns to session. By the end of the week the Senate is expected to vote on the president's request to use force against the Assad regime. The president and the West argue that the Assad regime has crossed a 'Red Line' concerning the use of chemical weapons in warfare. This is not Syria's first 'Red Line.' Further, what is a 'Red Line'?

The foreign policy term 'Red Line' started off as an actual red line on a map. In 1970, the Nixon administration actually drew a red line on a map to show the maximum expansion of U.S. forces into Cambodia. Eight years later, in 1978, the Israelis borrowed the tactic and drew a red line on a map of Lebanon showing where Israel would not tolerate the crossing of Syrian forces. On October 29, 1981, the Israelis were the first to use the term metaphorically: telling other Arab States where they could not move troops, and stating that Israel would never allow an Arab State to acquire nuclear weapons. (Washington Post, 10/29/1981, "Israeli Cabinet Schedules Emergency Session After AWACS Vote") The Israelis call a 'Red Line' "Kav Haadom", literally "Red Line". The Americans reclaimed the expression and on October 17th 1987 US Secretary of State George P. Shultz called an Iranian missile attack on the vessel Sea Isle City -- a U.S.-flagged oil-tanker in Kuwaiti territorial waters -- a 'Red Line'. Before 1987, while the U.S. frequently made its limitations known, it rarely, if ever, used the phrase 'Red Line' publicly.

Since Reagan all succeeding presidents -- Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama -- have publicly used the phrase 'Red Line' as a tool of foreign policy. Indeed, 'Red Lines' have become, over the past 30 years, a key part of American foreign policy. They are a uniquely post-Cold War phenomenon in which the American Executive Branch, unilaterally and without Congressional approval, promises war on the behalf of the American people without consent. During the Cold War, as seen during the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy needed to explain the American position; he could not simply throw out the term 'Red Line'.

Obama set this 'Red Line' on August 20, 2012, stating, "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." The president was not reading off a teleprompter, nor a prepared speech. Before this speech the president held to the 'Red Line' of not arming the rebels. Thus with this comment Obama, in an almost off-the-cusp manner, drastically increased U.S. commitment and interest in Syria, or the potential there-of.

Many would make the argument that if Obama does not enforce this 'Red Line' on Syria, Iran would have no incentive to obey its 'Red Lines' of not blocking the Straight of Hormuz and not making nuclear weapons. Thus the danger of inaction lays not only the continued use of chemical warfare in Syria, but also the message it would send Iran.

The 1,429 (alleged) chemically-induced causalities constitute about 1.5% of the 100,000 people killed in Syria's Civil War thus far. Online videos provide graphic and horrific evidence of the use of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons also constituted about 1% of all battlefield deaths during World War I, however the War is remembered, largely, for its amazing use of chemical weapons as described in Wilfred Owen's poem, "Dulce et Decorum est". Wilfred Owen was himself killed-in-action during the war. Thus, while truly terrible, we may be viewing the entire war only through the eyes of the "1 percent."

One must question whether death in one form is worse than that same level of death in another. There will never be one answer to this question. There is never an already known-unchallengeable foreign policy position, indifferent to the times, to which a nation can hold. And here we see the problem with 'Red Lines': that it places a nation at the brink of war indefinitely without any reference to real-time events. 'Red Lines' are a solution in need of a problem. If used, they must be carefully and thoroughly thought through.

Force may well be necessary to remove Bashar al-Assad from power already, it may become necessary in the future, and some would surely argue that it would never become necessary, but Obama's use of 'Red Lines' is surely going to have a lasting impression on U.S. foreign policy. For, while it may be in the prerogative of the Executive Branch to establish 'Red Lines,' Obama may set the precedent that they can only be enforced if through Congressional approval. The president cannot set a 'Red Line' and then use the War Powers Act to unilaterally set the United States on a path for war. This would maintain the balance of power within U.S. politics and would maintain the precedent of how the United States, largely, has declared war since its conception.