Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

The problem with ‘red lines’

sprovost@thetribunenews.comAugust 30, 2013 

Steve Provost

‘You shall not pass!”

You may be familiar with this saying from the 2001 film adaptation of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” where it’s uttered by the wizard Gandalf. In context, Gandalf is speaking to a menacing creature called a balrog. The full quote goes as follows: “You cannot pass! I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the Flame of Anor. The dark fire will not avail you, Flame of Udun! Go back to the shadow. You shall not pass!”

That’s pretty much what President Barack Obama said to the Syrian government when he drew the now-famous “red line” against the use of chemical weapons.

We all draw red lines, or lines in the sand, as they used to be called. Perhaps the change in terminology owes something to the rapid replacement of sand with concrete. I suspect that out on Oceano Dunes, they’re still drawing lines in the sand. But whatever we call them, they’re necessary. Another word for them is boundaries. They announce to others what we will tolerate and, between people who share a degree of mutual respect, they can be very useful.

If you’re in an exclusive relationship, it’s helpful to communicate to others that you aren’t available. If you have asthma, but some of your friends smoke, it’s a good idea to let them know that they shouldn’t light up in your home. Friends, on the whole, respect one another’s boundaries.

But boundaries become tricky in the absence of mutual respect. Sometimes, there’s a legal mechanism for dealing with this. If, for instance, you set up a boundary by putting your name on a do-not-call list, you can report a solicitor who violates this boundary — and the solicitor can face penalties.

There are, however, instances when you’re on your own in enforcing your boundaries. Someone cuts you off in traffic, makes a pass at your significant other or ignores the “no soliciting” sign on your door. The alternatives aren’t pleasant. If you try to enforce your boundaries, you might end up breaking the law yourself (road rage comes to mind). On the other hand, if you do nothing, it could serve as a signal that your boundaries are imaginary and can be violated with impunity.

The United States has found itself dealing with a couple of boundaries recently. The first involves Egypt. Under the Foreign Assistance Act, passed in 1961, the U.S. cannot supply military aid to any government in the aftermath of a military coup. Yet Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that he opposes cutting off military aid to Egypt, which continues nearly two months after a blatant coup in that country.

That law is very clear. What’s less clear is Obama’s “red line” declaration against Syria: “… a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” The problem is, that’s not a sound bite. What constitutes “a whole bunch”? And how often would they have to be “utilized” in order to trigger a response? The president said he had been “very clear” about what the red line entailed, but his line in the sand was as clear as mud.

The law on military coups is clear; Obama’s statement is much less so. Yet the U.S. appears ready to enforce a murky pink line in Syria while ignoring a half-century-old red line that appears to apply in Egypt.

It may be argued that the Syrian government has also violated a clear red line — international law — if it has, indeed, employed chemical weapons. But it has also violated international law repeatedly (far more frequently than it is said to have used chemical weapons) by bombing civilian targets. So, if the United States wants to use international law to justify for intervening now, the question arises why it didn’t intervene when civilians were being killed by conventional weapons.

This fine mess demonstrates why red lines, when set down against adversaries, must be drawn sparingly, with precision and consistency. Unfortunately, the U.S. has failed to do this and, consequently, finds itself embroiled in a morass of escalating violence and lost credibility.

Too bad Gandalf can’t come to the rescue.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service