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Red lines

- September 12, 2012

The kerfuffle over “red lines” maps into some recent debates about how international crises work in an interesting way.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, and other Israeli officials are upset that the Obama administration is not setting clear “red lines” defining at what point the U.S. would attack Iran to try to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.   Their best case would probably be for Obama to publicly announce something like “we would consider Iran’s doing X, Y, and Z, or failing to stop doing X, Y, Z  by such-and-such date, grounds for military action.”

They say they think the effect of such a public pronouncement would be to raise the likelihood that Iran would be deterred from proceeding, and so an attack would not be necessary.  They also say that failure to make such a pronouncement may lead the Iranian leadership to infer weakness, giving them permission to go ahead.

So far, at least, the Obama administration seems reluctant to state a definite red line beyond which they would start a war.

It’s hard to make any sense of what’s going on here unless both the Israelis and Obama think it would be pretty costly for him to make a clear commitment and then not follow through on it.  But why would it be costly?

A typical answer in the research on international disputes is that Obama could face domestic flak for talking big and then doing nothing if challenged.  Varied sorts of evidence support or are consistent with this possibility (eg, here, here, here).  But there are also some recent articles questioning whether domestic “audience costs” actually exist and play any significant role in crisis signaling (herehere, and, if you just can’t get enough, this pay-walled symposium).

In this case, at least, I can see some reason to doubt that Obama would pay a major cost for drawing a red line and then forgetting about it in a few months.  I don’t see it online but the NYT print version had a nice box listing six previous “red lines” that were passed without attacks or obviously large negative domestic consequences for Clinton, Bush, or Obama.  (Though maybe there were some.  It’s hard to say since we don’t see what public or elite opinion would have been if these red lines had never been set.)

But if that’s right — if there’s zero potential cost to Obama for setting a red line and then letting it slide — then why doesn’t he just do it, making Netanyahu et al happy and maybe helping himself electorally by making himself look like a tough guy leader?  And if there are no costs for backing down created by a clear red line, why is the Israeli leadership so keen on having one defined?

Maybe the audience cost critics think there is some other cost for backing down (or not following through) that would be created by a public red line?  Concern about international reputation, for instance?  Concern that this would cause the Iranians to move even faster and so force a decision before the election?  I don’t know, but on the face of it I think a concern with domestic political costs seems pretty plausible in this case.  Yes, red lines have been let go before, but this time it would be a highly salient commitment.

And yes, if there are costs to defining a clear red line and not following through, then failure to set one does convey something about the Obama administration’s inclination to go to war here, at least in the next few months.  But we already kind of knew that and it doesn’t necessarily say much about what they will be willing to do in the new year.  As best I can tell, the administration has suggested that its red line is weaponization, though without ruling out action short of this line depending on international circumstances.