December 26, 2013 7:46 pm

A year in a word: Red line – a phrase devalued

The future of the term is in doubt after events in Syria this summer

(noun) – a boundary or limit that should not be crossed; and, if it is, only at peril of violent retribution (See also: “Don’t even think about it” – pop. slang)

Red lines, devalued by their inflationary use in 2013, are not what they used to be.

The ultimate red line, arguably, was MAD, the nuclear deterrence doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction that prevented nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, displacing their contest into third world hot wars during the so-called cold war. For lesser powers, red lines served as a plausibly macho deterrence tactic.

But the future of the red line is in doubt after this summer, when Bashar al-Assad, trying to break the stalemate in Syria’s civil war, used sarin gas against civilians in a rebel stronghold near Damascus, killing more than 1,400, among them about 400 sleeping children.

Barack Obama, the US president, a year earlier had warned: “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised. That would change my calculus.” Mr Obama or his officials reiterated the warning six times in the intervening year. US missile strikes against the Assads’ military muscle were readied within days.

But, as the White House sought approval from Congress – following David Cameron’s failure to persuade Britain’s parliament on military action – the tone was all wrong. John Kerry, secretary of state, insisted what the US planned was “unbelievably small”.

So small it never happened. The US and Russia instead cobbled together a plan to rid Syria of chemical weapons, recasting Mr Assad as a statesman. US ally Israel was outraged, not on Syria’s behalf but because it now judged Mr Obama’s red lines on Iran’s nuclear ambitions worthless. Bombast merchants such as Rush Limbaugh paint him as the villain. But it is the backlash against Iraq and Afghanistan in the US and UK that has trampled on the utility of red lines.

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