Don’t worry. The red line hasn’t been tripped yet. At least President Obama said as much during a press conference last week about the worsening situation in Syria. You may have missed it, but by indicating that a red line would be crossed by the Syrian government’s hostile movement, use, or loss of control of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD, including various nerve gasses), President Obama implied that there actually exists some kind of red line that, if the Assad regime crosses, would merit foreign intervention. It was also implied that the regime’s massacres to date — which the UN estimates have killed 23,000 civilians since the conflict began — have not crossed this line. Strangely, it was also implied that the massacring Assad government is, at least at present, sufficiently trustworthy, capable, and deterable to control its WMD even while it is conducting a political cleansing campaign.
A lot of attention is given to the instrument of WMD, sometimes to the apparent neglect of the ultimate outcome — ‘MD’, or mass destruction — that we’re all so concerned about. Is there a red line for atrocities? In Iraq, Saddam Hussein apparently used WMD against civilians during Kurdish uprisings in the late-1980s, yet we didn’t lift a finger. On the other hand when the US did intervene in 2003, Saddam had persecuted and killed many civilians, but with no WMDs in sight. What if all Syrians were targeted, but without the use of WMD? Would that entail a red line? Is it that mass killing without WMD is relatively predictable and tolerable since it is more likely to stay within the confines of a target state’s borders, while the uses of WMD are less predictable, more prone to international spillovers, and thus more terrorizing? This begs an uncomfortable question: if countries are not simply willing to act out of moral principles (including those that have ratified the Genocide Convention), then what’s the moral calculus, if there is one? How many civilians must be killed, at what rate, with what certainty, or with what potential for spillovers to merit international action? Something tells me the red line is not going to be victim number 23,001 unless that person is killed with WMD.
Humanitarian interventions are by no means simple pursuits given international collective action problems and the risks from changing conditions on the ground. With Syria, there is rightly great caution about possible negative reactions. For instance, Erica Chenoweth’s recent post referenced research showing that some kinds of interventions may accelerate the pace of human rights abuses. We may not know whether interventions possibly decrease the number of violations on net and yield fewer actual civilian casualties if we only consider the possible shifts that interventions induce — toward either greater ruthless and audacity or toward restraint — in the strategies of target states (which human rights indices seem to mainly reflect). We must also consider the other side of the equation of the possible protective effects that various kinds of interventions may have.
There can also be unintended consequences from letting events play out as well, with the potentially destabilizing effects of Syrian refugee crises in neighboring countries being just one example. Do the risks of intervention imply that we never do anything, no matter how bad atrocities become?
If anything is clear from Obama’s comments, it’s that the battle of the red lines may be just beginning.