Netanyahu, Red-lines and Geopolitical History.

Benjamin Netanyahu to the UN General Assembly, 27/09/2012

At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Red lines don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war.

Look at NATO’s charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.

President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.

In fact, it’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression.

If the Western powers had drawn clear red lines during the 1930s, I believe they would have stopped Nazi aggression and World War II might have been avoided.

In 1990, if Saddam Hussein had been clearly told that his conquest of Kuwait would cross a red line, the first Gulf War might have been avoided.

Clear red lines have also worked with Iran.

Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormouz. The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off.

Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.

Apart from all the other, creepy parts of this Bibi’s speech (it seemed for a while as though he was giving a PR/motivational speech for “Corporation Israel”, the quotation above seemed the most ridiculous, the most ill-informed and lacking in a knowledge of international relations.  For someone who’s been Israeli PM twice, such ignorance (or wilful misrepresentation) is unacceptable.

I’m going to have a go at “Fisking” the above section…

So, NATO’s “red line” hardly kept the peace during the Cold War.  The idea that the USSR was dis-incentivised to launch a first strike against the USA because the collective security articles of NATO’s treaty doesn’t make sense. (Any Soviet attack would have been directed against the US, not against other NATO members.  What he seems to be saying is that the USSR was put off from launching an attack on West Germany, Britain, Austria etc.. for fear of an American retaliation, whereas all strategic logic indicates that any attack would have been total)

Which leads us to….

According to Netanyahu, “Red-lines” prevented the escalation of the Cuban Missile crisis into nuclear war which, unless Bibi is denying pretty much every historical account of the crisis which exists, is at best disingenuous, at worst outright nonsense.

Whatever “Red-lines” he seems to be referring to (location of missiles in cuba in the first instance or the allowing of transport ships to deliver components to Cuba during the crisis), they don’t seem to stack up.  The Cuban missile crisis was part of an dialectic of escalation within super-power competition caused largely by miscalculation, both of intelligence and intentions which led both sides blindly fumbling towards the brink of a war of annihilation which neither of them desired in the slightest but became convinced that the Other was hell-bent on provoking.  Redlines didn’t prevent a nuclear war, on the contrary, it was, it seems, pure luck (and, in no small part, the resistance of both Kennedy and Kruschev to listen to the advice of their more bellicose generals and defence advisors)

What next?  Oh right, the 1930’s “Nazi appeasement” argument.

If only Britain, France and others had put clear Red-lines around territorial boundaries in Europe, and had they only been willing to go to war on these, early on, then WWII could have been avoided.

To quote Bibi again, “yeah right”

This only stands if you take a very specific counter-factual history which reads German re-armament at a stage in the early-mid 1930’s (the start of Hitler’s territorial expansionism) as being at such a nascent stage that it would be overwhelmed in war by a united front of European nations standing against it.

This is an essentially contested point in the history of international relations and war studies, it is far from clear that what would have resulted from a war in 1934 or 1936 as opposed to 1939 would have been any “better” as a result of a policy of “Red-lines” (the idea that the Holocaust would have been avoided is, likewise moot.  You could just as easily make the case that a Germany defeated in a limited European war could have left Hitler in power, free to implement policies of internal repression entirely unhindered or, otherwise, a Soviet invasion of the whole of Europe.  This is the problem with counter-factual history, very quickly, the variables multiply and escape ones clutches, as though one were trying to capture specs of dust born on a ray of light).

What’s left? Oh right, Kuwait.

British foreign policy engagement with the Ottoman Empire in 1913 resulted in the slicing off of a traditional piece of Mesopotamia and the establishment of the Emirate of Kuwait as a (partial) sop to various other components of territorial and political horse-trading which became part and parcel of the British cartographies of imperialism.  Fast forward through the 20th century (including Britain’s brutal suppression of Iraqi resistance to it’s colonial mandate and recall Winston Churchill’s famous quote that in Mesopotamia “I wholly support the use of poison gas against uncivilised tribes”) to a series of territorial disputes involving Iraq’s (seemingly quite legitimate claims) that Kuwait was involved in “slant drilling” operations in Kuwaiti oilfields, across the border, destabilising existing Iraqi wells.  The specifics, as usual, seem not to concern here.  However, the idea that some “Red-line”, clearly drawn, would have somehow prevented the Hussein regime from invading is bizarre.


Either Netanyahu is saying that Hussein was a rational actor who would have backed down on the dispute,  faced with the knowledge that the invasion of Kuwait would have resulted in the massive military response it did.  This, though undermines the narrative of Saddam as the unhinged, unpredictable rogue dictator who destabilised the regional balance of power.

Alternatively, he’s saying that the charter of the UN which prohibits wars of aggression and threatens consequence for violators had been read, internalised and calculated by the regime who considered that this “Red-line” (which is what it is) could be crossed with a minimum of comeback.  In neither case does the “Red-line” seem in any way an indicative marker of state behaviour (before or after the fact).

Ugh.  Anything left?  Oh right, The Strait of Hormuz.  This is a classic post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc fallacy.  Or it would be, if anything had actually happened.  Hormuz is an important geo-strategic choke point in contemporary globalization.  Partly as a response to a Western military build up in the gulf (16 US/American Warships including 2 Aircraft carriers, and unknown numbers of Submarines as of January this year), the Irainan vice president remarked that in response to sanctions, his country could seek to prevent oil exports moving through the strait.  They didn’t.  The military build up still remains.  To connect this, somehow to the drawing of a political “Red-line” to which one state backed down in the face of a threat by a powerful coalition of others is to confuse cause and effect. Any Iranian threat to close the strait is a response to sanctions and threats against it (you could make the argument that closing the strait is what would happen if Iran was attacked, thereby making it the consequence of their own “Red-line”).


In conclusion, showing the UN General Assembly a big picture of a cartoon bomb is a sure sign of a limited understanding of geopolitical history.



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3 responses to “Netanyahu, Red-lines and Geopolitical History.

  1. [insert intelligent comment here.] that said, “fisking”?

  2. David Littlewood

    It always annoys me when the ‘appeasement’ of Hitler is brought up in arguments like this given that the idea that Germany could have been beaten in a war in the mid, or even the late, 1930s completely ignores the reality of the situation. Take the re-militarisation of the Rhineland in 1936, often highlighted as the first step on the slippery slope. Who was going to stop the Germans at that point? Certainly not the Americans as they weren’t members of the League of Nations and never signed the Treaty of Versailles that created the de-militarised zone in the first place. The British? Well, no, because they had no plans in place for sending an expeditionary force to France and lacked the men or equipment to establish one. What about the French? Well they certainly had the men and the motive. But the the whole basis of French military thinking since the mid-1920s had been that any future war with Germany would be a defensive war from behind the Maginot Line. They had no plans for an offensive war and all of their arms and equipment had been designed for defensive purposes. An army can’t simply change its whole philosophy on a whim. Even when you get to the Sudetenland Crisis in 1938, the ‘high point of appeasement’, the same factors are still in place. It’s fine to talk about a ‘Grand Alliance’ between Britain, France and the Soviet Union, but what would that amount to in practice? Britain, which lacked any means to fight Germany, and the French who were still totally geared for a defensive war. This is not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the public in both Britain and France would never have countenanced a war with Germany at that point, especially over a country most of them had never even heard of. The Soviet Army was wrecked by the purges, and, rather importantly, the country had no border with either Germany or Czechoslovakia. So how were the Soviets meant to do anything? The semi-Fascist government of Poland certainly wouldn’t have wanted the Red Army marching through its territory. So the whole concept of a Grand Alliance is nothing but smoke and mirrors. The proof of it all came when the final “Red-line” was tripped and war was declared after the invasion of Poland. Did Britain and France do anything? No, because they couldn’t and wouldn’t. They had to wait to be attacked in order to fight Germany. Anyway, I feel I may have moved away from your point somewhat Mr. Weir and will cease now. Excellent blog.

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