7
May

Sorting the mistakes from the fiascos on Syria.

redline

There is so much wrong with the current “red-line” mess with Syria that a little sorting out is in order. It has gotten to the point that you can’t tell which fiasco you are talking about without a scorecard.

In the first instance, of course, there is the self-inflicted wound element of the problem, as reported in Sunday’s New York Times. Apparently, according to the paper, the president’s initial use of the term “red line” was an ill-considered bit of rhetorical muscle-flexing on his part. Since the president is the font from which all policy flows, it can hardly be called freelancing, but it was something close, making policy with a slip of the lip and less reflection on consequences than is truly desirable.

Of course, the word “consequences” cuts to another dimension of the problem that goes beyond the process misstep involved. Declaring a red line without figuring out the consequences you are willing to impose in advance is asking for trouble. It is the equivalent of a parent threatening an unruly child by counting to three: It works fine if the child doesn’t have the courage, curiosity, or recklessness to find out what happens after you get to three. Typically, however, the approach doesn’t work if the one you are seeking to talk back into line is a proven mass-murderer.

Another problem associated with the red line that Sen. John McCain quipped was written in “disappearing” ink has to do with the various ways United States has hemmed and hawed about the issue in the days since evidence appeared that suggested the red line might have been crossed. Admittedly, some of this was soundly cautious, a “let’s be sure” reaction that was a hard-learned lesson from Iraq. But some of it — notably the mixed signals that included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s suggesting that the line might have been passed (a little, somehow, but not too much, but still worrisomely) while also saying the United States was considering tougher measures while also not actually taking any — was a classic illustration of a rudderless reaction. Read more…

David Rothkopf is CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy. 

As publilshed in www.foreignpolicy.com on May 6, 2013.

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