TEL AVIV, Israel — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is largely to blame for the blundering red line that has painted US President Barack Obama – and now the US Congress – into a corner of bad options in response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons.
For a full year prior to the Aug. 2012 White House press conference where Obama put forth his “red line” on the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Syria, Netanyahu and his emissaries were relentlessly pressing for a US red line on Iranian nukes.
At the time, Israel’s psychological warfare campaign against Iran’s nuclear weapons drive was in full swing. Then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke openly about a “zone of immunity” that would complicate a prospective, unilateral Israeli attack.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and key ministers grew openly contemptuous of Obama’s preferred policy of sanctions and diplomacy, arguing that only a clear and public ultimatum from Washington could roll back the mullah’s quest for nuclear weapons.
Whether intentional or subliminal, it was Netanyahu who promulgated the concept of red lines, injecting syntax never before used by a US president into complex matters of state.
A thorough online search failed to come up with a single example linking red lines to US presidents unless one counted the Red Line Metro connection through Union Station en route to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
But in the toxic run-up to US elections – when the conservative Israeli leader was widely perceived to back Obama’s Republican Party rival – Netanyahu intensified exhortations for a red line on Iran. “I think it’s important to place a red line before Iran,” Netanyahu told CNN in a September 11 interview.
The Israeli leader credited John F. Kennedy for purchasing “decades of peace” by putting a “putting a red line before the Soviets in the Cuban missile crisis.”
Later that month, after failing to extract the White House ultimatum he hoped would trigger the so-called military option in Iran, Netanyahu took his case to the UN, drawing the now-iconic red line across a cartoon drawing of a ticking bomb.
Eytan Gilboa, an expert on US-Israel relations at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv, noted that “red line” is a strategic concept developed initially for game theory and that Netanyahu was incorrect in using the term to describe Kennedy’s dealings with Nikita Khrushchev.
Kennedy’s so-called red line in the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis actually referred to an operational line on the map delineating the US military quarantine interdiction arc in the Atlantic Ocean, some 500 miles from Cuba.
“I doubt he [Kennedy] ever used the term red line,” Gilboa said. “It was an operational line beyond which Kennedy reserved the right to seize Soviet ships and remove the missiles.”
In a Sept. 3 interview, Gilboa conceded that Obama “might have been influenced” by Netanyahu’s repeated use of the term, but it didn’t excuse the leader of the free world from adopting what should be reserved as “an extreme formulation of deterrent warning.”
“Beyond the huge mistake involving poor choice of words, the bigger issue is credibility. It’s very problematic if you make this extreme formulation for purposes of deterrence and are unwilling or unable to follow through once the line has been crossed,” Giboa said.
“The whole thing of setting red lines in Syria is a big fiasco, which the president probably regrets now.”
As Obama now attempts to win congressional approval to respond militarily to the “moral obscenity” attributed to the Syrian regime, Netanyahu can make up for whatever intentional or inadvertent role he played in the current Syrian entanglement.
If he hasn’t done so already, Netanyahu can and should discreetly enlist pro-Israel supporters in Congress to deliver the two-thirds vote Obama so desperately needs to buttress US deterrence and salvage what remains of America’s rapidly diminishing credibility in the Middle East.
In these toxic times of inter- and intra-party politics, support for Israel is one of the only issues that both houses and both parties of this sequester-afflicted Congress can agree on.
Netanyahu helped Obama paint himself into the Syrian corner. His help now in extricating the president from the current crisis will serve Israel well when the time comes to act on Washington’s yet-to-be-drawn prospective red line in Iran.