Commentary: Drawing red lines - remember, sand shifts | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Drawing red lines - remember, sand shifts

May 7, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: At a simpler place in time, a ruler could tell another sovereign not to move to troops to their river boundary or else. It would be understood that the ruler would respond with force and he would be able to clearly verify whether his diktat was not met.

In today’s world, the drawing of this type of red line is not wise. A U.S. president does not deal with Canada or Mexico. Rather, as a great power (the last one?), America tries to exert influence in many hemispheres for a wide variety of reasons.

Decision-making in the international realm has become more opaque because we have no clearly discernible foe. We deal with many nations of less prominence whose cultures and history we do not fully comprehend. We may issue our warnings but leaders who view us as a paper tiger greet them with derision.

Over commitment in several wars in the past 50 years have cost many, many lives and accomplished very little for all the effort. In each case, we intervened outside the First World and were not prepared for culture, terrain, or the idea that we would be viewed as unwanted interlopers. Nationalism and/or religious or tribal differences affect outcomes, and these factors have often escaped our purview. 

Today, Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others call for greater U.S. effort to topple President Assad in Syria. Civil war has raged there and thousands have died. Perhaps foolishly, President Barack Obama said that if Syria used chemical weapons against its own people that would be the red line.

Can the existence of the red line be accurately verified? The quality of our intelligence in that part of the world has been wanting in the past. If use of such weapons were to be verified, what is to be done? And what if the rebels, too, use chemical weapons?

The international community did not move against Saddam Hussein when he used chemicals against the Kurds in the 1980s. There is not a clear precedent.

Nor is the situation in Syria very clear. The country is split along religious lines, and numerous groups oppose Assad. We do not know a great deal about them but the New York Times reported this week that a goodly number have Al Qaeda connections. The continuing violence and religious cleavages present in Iraq should give us pause. Intervention does not equal peace and democracy.

After the armed conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not easy to conceive of the deployment of ground soldiers to Syria. How receptive would the Russians be at this time to any intervention? Sen. Graham has mentioned a no-fly zone. Would that be effective? Perhaps we could react as we did with Libya, but do we really know how all that is winding down and who is in charge?

In the 20th century, the United States intervened clandestinely in a number of countries as part of its fight against communism. Such intervention — in Iran, Central America, Africa and Chile — left a very bitter aftertaste. Our more open movements in Vietnam and subsequently have not been unmitigated successes. We haven’t won hearts and minds; and our resume is far from unblemished.

The United States did not intervene against the bloodshed in Rwanda or against what continues today in neighboring countries. We did not intervene directly in Darfur. We did act successfully in Bosnia, but there had been much loss of life and pillage before we moved in. 

Some see the United States as the “city on the hill,” setting the example of democracy and fairness to the world. To them, a democratic form of government is the best and we should aid its expansion around the globe.

Unfortunately, intervention — even to prevent wholesale slaughter — does not ipso facto mean that democracy will be the end note. Without sufficient intelligence, without a clear understanding of religious, ethnic, or tribal factors, or without being able to discern who alternate governors would be should make us cautious in drawing red lines.

And, finally, is the intervention humanitarian or part of a certain domestically inspired agenda? Time, of course will tell with Syria, but those who imply simple solutions are wrong.