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Syria: when ‘red lines’ make the headlines

31 May 2013

4:39 PM

31 May 2013

4:39 PM

What is a red line, exactly? We’ve been hearing a lot of talk about ‘red lines’ from our politicians in recent weeks in relation to Syria, chemical weapons, and western intervention. ‘Red Line’ has become a sort of post-Iraq diplomatic catchphrase. It translates, roughly, as  the ‘point at which we, the West, will definitely — and we really mean it — intervene, so take us seriously, ok?’ But where has it come from? Is it connected to ‘redline’, the mechanical word for the maximum engine speed at which an internal combustion engine can operate without overheating? Is it to do with the red laser lines that alarm systems use? The thin red line? ‘Redlining’ in Microsoft Word? Or has it actually been around for ages? Maybe CoffeeHousers will be kind enough to elucidate.

Whatever the etymology, ‘red line’ is meant to sound at once defensive and dramatic — something the President in a Hollywood action movie might say — which might explain why it has recently entered the diplomatic and media lexicon. Red lines look good in a headline. The Israelis have been using the expression quite a lot in relation to Tehran (i.e. ‘If Iran reached a certain level of nuclear capability, it would represent a red line for us’). And now Obama or Cameron seem to be taking it in turns to agree that chemical weapons in Syria are a red line, ie as soon as they have solid evidence that Assad has been using them against his people, they will directly move against him.


But shouldn’t we be a bit anxious when our leaders seize upon new words with such alacrity?  A cursory knowledge of foreign-policy disasters should tell you that when the political establishment hits on a new and important-sounding word or acronym, it’s usually bad news — Axis of Evil, WMD, COIN etc, etc. And why should we draw the red line so carefully around chemical weapons? Does we mean President Assad can massacre his people in any way he likes, just so long as he doesn’t use chemicals?

The question of what to do in Syria needs less grandstanding around imaginary coloured lines, more clear thinking and good arguments. That’s why the Spectator’s next debate couldn’t be better timed.


The next Spectator Debate on 24 June will be debating the motion ‘Assad is a war criminal. The West must intervene in Syria’ with Malcolm Rifkind, Andrew Green, Douglas Murray and more. Click here to book tickets.


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