Don’t step over the line and re-militarize the Rhineland. Absorbing Austria would cross a red line. Breaking up Czechoslovakia is unacceptable. Get out of Poland by the announced deadline. The rest was history.
Don’t dare blow up another American military barracks overseas. Don’t even consider another attack on the World Trade Center. Don’t even try blowing up one more American embassy in East Africa. Don’t ever put a hole in a U.S. warship again. The rest was history.
President Obama issued yet another one of those sorts of warnings to stop the violence to Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych just before protesters drove Yanukovych out of office. “There will be consequences if people step over the line,” Obama threatened.
Secretary of State John Kerry joined the chorus of condemnation by hinting at economic sanctions if Yanukovych didn’t stop his violent crackdown on protesters.
Why does this rhetorical assault sound familiar?
Over the last five years, Obama has issued serial deadlines to Iran to cease and desist from its ongoing enrichment of uranium. All the while, more Iranian centrifuges went on line.
Later, Obama turned from deadlines to red lines. He threatened Syrian president Bashar Assad with one about using chemical weapons. “A red line for us,” the president warned, “is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
Assad moved over that American red line, using chemical weapons to gas his own people, and is now winning the war against the Syrian insurgents. In the end, an embarrassed Obama was reduced to denying that he had ever issued a red line in the first place: “I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line.”
The administration’s latest cry of “outrageous” does not seem so absolute either. Remember, the president himself used that exact adjective to condemn the IRS scandal when it was revealed that the tax agency was inordinately focusing on conservative groups.
Later, after various key IRS officials had invoked the Fifth Amendment, resigned, or abruptly retired, Obama brushed off the scandal. It was, he said, mostly a media event conjured up by “outraged” journalists. Somehow, a scandal that the president once decried as institutional abuse ended up as a media melodrama perpetrated by unduly outraged reporters.
Will the Ukrainian mess now abate due to Kerry’s hints at sanctions?
Given Kerry’s loud global-warming sermonizing and the administration’s serial threats, bad actors abroad probably believe that burning too much coal is more likely to anger the U.S. than shooting protesters or gassing enemies.
After the Obama administration finally assembled a coalition of allies to impose tough sanctions against Iran, and after the trade embargoes began to bite the theocracy, Obama, without warning his coalition, abruptly relaxed those embargoes and entered into talks with the Iranians.
The message? Imposing sanctions is a difficult business. When they finally work, they are likely to be abruptly lifted if the squeezed nation sends out a few peace feelers and wants to feign appearing reasonable.
The U.S. has now shot so many rhetorical arrows that its quiver of indignation is empty — and the world’s troublemakers may know it. An administration that ignores almost all of its own Obamacare deadlines surely cannot expect others to abide by any timetables it sets abroad.
There may be no viable solutions to the violence in Syria or Ukraine. The messes in Egypt and Libya, the Chinese provocations to their neighbors, the North Korean lunacy, and the spiraling violence in Venezuela certainly have no easy answers. But not knowing quite what to do is not the same as knowing certainly what not to do.
Although the U.S. alone seems to honor its promised deadlines of withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq, the world’s aggressors sense that the Obama administration’s bluster will be followed by more bluster. Therefore, they have decided to risk aggrandizements while they can. In the mind of Vladimir Putin, today Ukraine, tomorrow the Baltic States or Eastern Europe. In the minds of the Iranian theocrats, if chemical WMD are okay in Syria, why not nuclear WMD in Iran? In China’s view, when Japan backs off, why shouldn’t Taiwan, South Korea, or the Philippines?
Such a seemingly insignificant loss of deterrence is how wars often start — when an aggressive nation bets that loud words signal that consequences will never follow. So it is emboldened to up the ante to try something even riskier.
America’s step-over line/deadline/red line outrage is long past monotonous and empty — and the result has been an ever scarier world.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected]. © 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.