Netanyahu's 'red line': Does drawing a line actually work?

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu literally drew a 'red line' on a simple diagram of Iran's nuclear program. How have red lines worked out in the past?

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York.

In a dramatic gesture, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu drew a "red line" on a diagram of Iran's nuclear program and called on the world to do the same to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons — a step the Iranians insist they don't intend to take.

Red lines, Netanyahu declared, "don't lead to war." Instead, he argued Thursday before the U.N. General Assembly that "red lines prevent war" by making clear the limits of international tolerance.

Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S.-Israel relations at Bar Ilan University, said red lines are considered less severe a warning than an ultimatum, which includes a threat of consequences.

History shows that the effectiveness of such warnings often depends on a country's resolve to follow through and accept the consequences.

Line in the sand

On August 2, 1990, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein sent soldiers and tanks into neighboring Kuwait and annexed the tiny, oil-rich nation as Iraq's 19th province. Six days later, President George H. W. Bush told Americans that "a line in the sand has been drawn" and ordered U.S. troops to Kuwait's neighbor Saudi Arabia.

Armed with a U.N. Security Council resolution and congressional authorization to use force, U.S. and allied jets launched air attacks on Baghdad and other Iraqi targets. The ground assault began Feb. 24 and within days the Iraqis had been driven out of Kuwait. Iraq accepted a cease-fire on March 3 and Kuwaiti sovereignty was restored.

Cuban missile crisis

One of history's most dangerous red-line moments came in October 1962 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy revealed to the world that the Soviet Union had been installing missile sites in Cuba, and demanded that Premier Nikita Khrushchev remove them. For 13 tense days, the world seemed headed for nuclear war. Kennedy declared a quarantine on all offensive military equipment headed for Cuba — effectively a "red line" around the Caribbean island nation — and threatened to turn back any ships carrying armaments. For their part, the Soviets tested a 300-kiloton hydrogen bomb as a reminder of Moscow's military might.

Ultimately behind-the-scenes negotiations produced a deal to avert nuclear holocaust. Khrushchev agreed to withdraw nuclear weapons from Cuba and Kennedy privately promised to decommission largely obsolete U.S. missiles in Turkey.

Berlin airlift

In 1945 the victorious allies divided the Nazi German capital into Russian, American, British and French zones, with each occupying power getting full access to the entire city. The Soviets considered West Berlin, located 110 miles into the Communist-controlled east, as a thorn that should be eliminated. Access to the city was Moscow's red line.

Three years into the occupation, the Soviets began restricting Western rail, road and canal entry to West Berlin. With 1.5 million Soviet soldiers around the city, Moscow effectively presented the West with the choice of acquiescing to Soviet demands and leaving or seeing its part of the city starve.

In response, the U.S. and its allies began flying in thousands of tons of food, fuel and other supplies. By the spring of 1949, the airlift was bringing in more supplies than had been delivered by rail. The blockade was lifted in May 1949. West Berlin served as a Western outpost until the collapse of Communism and the reunification of Germany some 40 years later.

54-40 or fight

In the 1840s, the phrase "54-40 or fight" became the battle cry for American expansionists in the Democratic Party who wanted the United States to push the border of the Oregon Territory north to Alaska. The numbers referred to the latitude of Russian-controlled Alaska. Britain also claimed much of the territory, now the Canadian province of British Columbia, and called the Americans' bluff, threatening war if that's what the hawks wanted.

The United States, already embroiled in a conflict with Mexico, was in no position to challenge the world's foremost military power. The issue dragged on until 1871 when the U.S., exhausted by four years of civil war, signed a treaty recognizing the border with Canada — well south of the "54-40 or fight" demand.

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