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A Brief History of Presidential Red Lines

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Prior to Obama, U.S. Presidents have been gun-shy to draw red lines with international relations and the threat of military force at stake (Obama owns 11 of the 13 such references); presidents have more commonly talked about actual red lines...on charts!

barackobama10.jpgBarack Obama is scheduled to make his case to the American people for military action against Syria in a prime time address Tuesday evening, though it is unlikely he will revisit the 'red line' argument during the speech.

Much has been made about the red line Barack Obama set - and recently argued he did not set - regarding the U.S. response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.

Obama has not yet confirmed whether or not he will abide by any Congressional vote against American military action against the Syrian government.

If he does, with his legacy purportedly at a crossroads, it will be a lesson learned too late that presidents should be cautious when publicly drawing red lines in the arena of international relations - particularly when the use of U.S. military force is on the table.

A Smart Politics review of the Public Papers of the Presidents finds that presidents prior to Obama have been extremely gun-shy when it comes to drawing rhetorical 'red lines' - particularly within the context of international relations and the threat of military force.

U.S. Presidents have mentioned the phrase 'red line' 47 times across 33 speeches or statements over the decades.

However, the term has been used only 13 times by presidents in the realm of international relations, with 11 of these delivered over the last year by Obama.

Obama first mentioned the two words in a press conference on August 20, 2012 in which the consequences of Syrian use of chemical weapons were raised:

"I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation...We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation...We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations significantly."

The president next visited the Syrian red line in a March 20, 2013 joint press conference in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel:

"With respect to chemical weapons, we intend to investigate thoroughly exactly what happened. Obviously, in Syria right now you've got a war zone. You have information that's filtered out, but we have to make sure that we know exactly what happened: what was the nature of the incident, what can we document, what can we prove. So I've instructed my teams to work closely with all other countries in the region and international organizations and institutions to find out precisely whether or not this red line was crossed."

And then again, a few months later, at a joint press conference with President Park Geun-hye of South Korea on May 7, 2013:

"I would note--not to answer the question that you lobbed over to President Park--that you suggested even in your question a perceived crossing of a red line. The operative word there, I guess, Stephen, is "perceived." And what I've said is that we have evidence that there has been the use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, but I don't make decisions based on "perceived." And I can't organize international coalitions around "perceived." We've tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn't work out well." - Barack Obama, The President's News Conference With President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, May 7, 2013

And at a joint press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 16, 2013:

"With respect to what I've said in the past around red lines--what I've said is that the use of chemical weapons are something that the civilized world has recognized should be out of bounds...Now, there are a whole range of options that the United States is already engaged in, and I preserve the options of taking additional steps--both diplomatic and military--because those chemical weapons inside of Syria also threaten our security over the long term, as well as our allies and friends and neighbors."

As evidence mounted that chemical weapons were used in Syria in recent weeks, the world waited for the president to make good on his 'red line' proclamation while pressure to legislate the issue on Capitol Hill increased at home.

Then, on September 4th at a joint news conference in Stockholm with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt of Sweden, Obama demurred:

"First of all, I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that -- in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act -- that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for."

However, Syria isn't the only nation to be on the receiving end of one of Obama's red lines.

The president has also done so in relation to Egypt and the Arab spring:

"They have to abide by their treaty with Israel. That is a red line for us, because not only is Israel's security at stake, but our security is at stake if that unravels." - Barack Obama, Presidential Debate in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012

But while Obama has been mired of late in his red line rhetoric, few other presidents have been bogged down by the term.

In only two other instances has a president used the term 'red line' in regard to a foreign policy ultimatum - and neither painted as bright a red line as the 44th President with regard to Syria.

George W. Bush raised the specter of a red line when it came to North Korean missile testing back in 2006:

"I believe it's best to make that choice clear to him with more than one voice, and that's why we have the six-party talks. And now that he has defied China and Japan and South Korea and Russia and the United States--all of us said, don't fire that rocket. He not only fired one; he fired seven. Now that he made that defiance, it's best for all of us to go to the U.N. Security Council and say loud and clear, here are some red lines. And that's what we're in the process of doing." - George W. Bush, The President's News Conference in Chicago, July 7, 2006

As well as U.S. foreign policy toward Taiwanese-Chinese relations:

"And people who study this very closely will see that the issue is in a better place. And I made it abundantly clear that there was some red lines for the United States on this issue, that there would be no unilateral declaration of independence, that our policy was still the same." - George W. Bush, Interview With Foreign Print Journalists, July 30, 2008

Other Red Lines

Most of the rare instances in which presidential rhetoric delved into red lines, the context was about as far from a threat of a military strike as can be imagined.

The first time the term was uttered by a U.S. president involved Lyndon Johnson joking around with the press on a different type of red line - a telephone line.

Johnson was asked who called and sang "Happy Birthday" to him:

"The State Chairman of Ohio. They are having their convention there today. The leading Democrats of the State are there, 1,200 of them. They sang "Happy Birthday" to me over the phone. They gave a lot of applause when he asked, "To whom am I speaking?" I said, "Lyndon Johnson." The fellow acted a little nervous. I think he expected to go through two or three secretaries. I got on the red line probably by mistake. He didn't understand the ranch system. Sometimes I do answer the phone here." - The President's News Conference at the LBJ Ranch, August 27, 1966

Over the years, the vast majority of 'red lines' drawn by presidents have been in reference to domestic policy.

In fact, most of the time presidents have used the term they have been referring to actual red lines - as in a red line on a chart - totaling 15 such usages:

"Now, let me show you a chart that I've had drawn to illustrate how this can be. Here you see two trend lines. The bottom line shows the increase in tax revenues. The red line on top is the increase in government spending." - Ronald Reagan, Address to the Nation on the Economy, February 5, 1981

"This chart shows you what I mean. You see that red line? It represents the rate of unemployment from 1968 through the present, and it tells us two important things..." - Ronald Reagan, Address to the Nation on the Economy, October 13, 1982

"And as the chart shows, the deficit reduction is for real. Now it is time to finish this job, to take that red line down to zero." - Bill Clinton, The President's News Conference, October 25, 1995

"The economic plan which the Congress adopted represents the red line. That's how much less the deficit will be. And the aggregate amount between these two lines is how much less our total debt will be by 1998. The yellow line represents where we can go, by conservative estimates, if the health care plan is adopted. You still have an operating deficit, and the national debt will still increase by this amount, but not by that amount. So we are clearly better off with the economic plan. We will have to make further cuts, by the way, to meet this red line." - Bill Clinton, Remarks at a Conference on Entitlements in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, December 13, 1993

"You can't pay for the red lines unless you're willing to raise taxes on the American people. I would call that a return to the tax-and-spend days. I have showed you our budget to get to surplus, and it requires this level of increase in spending--the blue. The people now in charge of the House and the Senate have submitted their own budgets, their own blueprint for how we should spend your money, and it's reflected in the red lines. Now, you can't grow the economy fast enough to get to the red lines. - George W. Bush, Remarks on the Federal Budget and a Question-and-Answer Session in Nashville, Tennessee, July 19, 2007

The red line even appeared in the context of foreign policy charts:

"As you can see from this blue U.S. line, in constant dollars, our defense spending in the 1960's went up because of Vietnam. And then it went downward through much of the 1970's. And now follow the red line, which is Soviet spending. It's gone up and up and up." - Ronald Reagan, Address to the Nation on Strategic Arms Reduction and Nuclear Deterrence, November 22, 1982

But, just as Obama recently distanced himself as the creator of his red line, sometimes Presidents do not want to claim ownership of red lines even in budgetary charts:

"And I may have a lot to learn, but I didn't create the red line. What I'm trying to do is to change the red line and bring the yellow line in. And let me say, to get the yellow line down here, we have to bring about an affordable health care plan for every American. And that's the next big step." - Bill Clinton, The President's News Conference, June 17, 1993

Other presidential uses of red lines include:

· California's Red Line Transit System

"My Secretary of Transportation was out here just a few days ago announcing a $1.4 billion commitment to the Red Line Mass Transit System." - Bill Clinton, Remarks Endorsing the Candidacy of Michael Woo for Mayor of Los Angeles and an Exchange With Reporters in Van Nuys, May 18, 1993

· The floral business industry getting 'red lined' by insurance companies due to the incidence of AIDS in the industry.

"Both cases--you have someone who has got a serious health problem, a diabetes problem, with a small business, it blows your rates up, and you can't afford to keep your coverage; or a certain industry gets red lined, a certain business." - Bill Clinton, Remarks in a Health Care Roundtable in Topeka, April 7, 1994

· Lobbying for a line item veto to 'red line' projects:

"And I believe there needs to be a process where the President has got the capacity to work with Congress to say, "Well, maybe this slice of the pie doesn't meet a national priority," where I'm able to red line projects, for example, and send them back to Congress for an up-or-down vote." - George W. Bush, Remarks at Micron Technology, Inc., in Manassas, Virginia, February 6, 2007

· Economic development in urban areas:

"It's wrong to draw a red line around the inner city -- it's not right or fair. And we're going to replace the red line with a green line of opportunity and jobs for the future." - George H.W. Bush, Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Home Builders in Atlanta, Georgia, January 19, 1990

· And presidential use of torture:

"That's a--that's a great question. You know, one of the--yeah, I don't think a president can tort--get--can order torture, for example. I don't think a president can order the assassination of a leader of another country with which we're not at war. Yes, there are clear red lines, and--it--you--you--you just asked a very interesting constitutional question. The extent to which a president, during war, can exercise authorities in order to protect the American people, and that's really what the debate is about." - George W. Bush, Interview with Bob Schieffer of CBS News, January 27, 2006

In short, red lines draw the least attention when they are drawn at home...on a chart.

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1 Comment


  • Matter of fact U.S. Presidents have mentioned the phrase 'red line' NOW way more than 58 times across 33 speeches or statements over the decades.

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