Just like the role of red lights in intersections, so would “red lines” reduce the probability of a military collision with a nuclear Iran. Clear red lines would upgrade the U.S. posture of deterrence and enhance preparedness against—and minimize the cost of—aggression. On the other hand, the absence of red lines constitutes a green light to aggression.
For example, the U.S. provided a green light to Iraq’s Aug. 2, 1990 invasion of Kuwait by failing to flash a red light during the July 25, 1990 meeting between Saddam Hussein and the U.S. ambassador to Kuwait. At the meeting, which took place during the height of the Iraq-Kuwait border dispute, Ambassador April Gillespie echoed Secretary Jim Baker’s self-destruct policy of engagement and diplomacy with rogue Iraq. She stated, “we have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait … We hope you can solve this problem using any suitable methods via the Arab League or via President Mubarak … All that we hope is that these issues are solved quickly.”
Prior to that meeting, the State Department clarified to Saddam that the U.S. had made no special defense or security commitments to Kuwait. Setting and implementing red lines would have deterred Saddam Hussein, and would have spared the U.S. the first, and possibly the second, Gulf Wars and their devastating human life, economic and military cost.
The U.S.’s failure to establish effective red lines to combat Islamic terrorism, and Washington’s determination to engage and negotiate with rogue Islamic regimes, has eroded the U.S.’s power of deterrence, constituting a green light to intensified anti-U.S. Islamic terrorism. For instance, the first attempt to blow-up the World Trade Center in 1993; the 1995/6 killing of 17 U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia; the murder of 300 civilians during the 1998 car-bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; and the killing of 17 U.S. sailors during the 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole. The absence of U.S. red lines and appropriate military response emboldened Islamic terrorists all the way up to 9/11.
The absence of red lines in the face of clear and present danger to U.S. diplomats in Libya; the U.S. suspension of disbelief; the subordination of unilateral U.S. military action to multilateral diplomatic considerations; and the submission of counter-terrorism to the ideology of engagement and negotiation, signaled—inadvertently—a green light to the bombing of the U.S. Consulate and the murder of the U.S. ambassador and the three American security personnel in Benghazi.
The Second World War could have been avoided if British Premier Neville Chamberlain had approached Hitler with thundering red lines rather than with appeasement. Moreover, a British-French steadfastness in defiance of Hitler’s pre-war could have triggered a revolt by the top German military command.
In order to be effective, the violation of red lines by terror-sponsor, Hugo Chavez-supporter Iran must be followed by a devastating, disproportional military preemption with no boots on the ground. The 1980 Iraqi invasion of Iran united the oppressed Iranian people and the tyrannical Ayatollahs against the mutual threat of occupation. However, “no boots on the ground” would clarify that the goal is not occupation, but the elimination of the oppressive regime. The Iranian people yearn for a regime-change, which they know cannot be realized via diplomacy or sanctions, which require the unattainable cooperation of China, Russia, Japan and India. They were betrayed by the West during their 2009 uprising, and will not attempt to topple the Ayatollahs while the U.S. refuses to confront Tehran. They are concerned that the U.S. is hell-bent on repeating the mistakes that paved the road to the nuclearization of North Korea.
A military preemption, with no boots on the ground, is a prerequisite for regime-change. It would constitute a departure from the U.S. apathy of 2009, thus providing a robust tailwind to the Iranian people in their attempt to overthrow the Ayatollahs.
In fact, a military preemption with no boots on the ground would prevent a nuclear war with Iran, while refraining from military preemption would—unintentionally—pave the road to a devastating nuclear war.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman all register with the U.S. Congress their anxiety about a nuclear Iran, which would devastate their pro-U.S. regimes. They urge the U.S. to preempt and relieve them of a lethal threat, just as Israel did in 1981, preempting Iraq’s nuclear drive, thus ridding pro-U.S. Gulf regimes of a nuclear Saddam Hussein. Will the U.S. heed the desires of the Iranian people and U.S. allies in the Gulf, thus sparing the U.S. the economic and national security devastation caused by a nuclear Iran in control of the Straits of Hormuz, the nerve center of global oil price and supply?
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of “Second Thought: a U.S.-Israel initiative.”
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in Israel Hayom and is distributed with the permission of Yoram Ettinger.