NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The red line is a form of ultimatum in diplomacy, one that's been used by kings, presidents, prime ministers to say do this and we will be forced to respond. Syria, as we mentioned, may have crossed one this week when chemical weapons reportedly killed dozens of people outside of Aleppo. Iran may cross another so-called red line this year over growing concerns the government is developing nuclear weaponry. A presidential threat carries grave weight. It also carries grave risk.
Aaron David Miller is the vice president for New Initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center. He spent two decades working for the State Department on Middle East relations and joins us now by phone from his office here in Washington. Nice to have you back on the program.
AARON DAVID MILLER: Great to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And the president said today the U.S. is investigating use of chemical weapons in Syria. That would cross a red line, quote-unquote. Chemical weaponry certainly a concern not just for Syria but for neighboring countries as well. It's a threat. Do we know what it means?
MILLER: Well, part of the problem with red lines is, I think, maybe it's the color. They get a bad name. They're not just, you know, they don't just suggest automaticity or triggers for war. They're actually much more effective if they're laid down in a way to be a deterrent or to kind of provide coercive diplomacy.
In the case of the several red lines that we have drawn, you have a real problem because in order to enforce a red line, number one, you need clarity of circumstance. You have to agree that something has happened. Number two, you'd need credibility of response. Whatever happened should be tied to a clear and measurable response, in this case by the United States. And finally, you really do need believability, that in the end, in this case the president of the United States is prepared to intervene seriously. And frankly, where red lines have now been used both in terms of Syria and Iran, I'm afraid that there's an absence of clarity, and there's also an absence of credibility. And I think overall the one cautionary note and tale about red lines is don't lay them down unless you're prepared to actually enforce them. Because if you don't, then what is - what purports to be a way to strengthen American resolve and credibility ends up weakening it. And I'm afraid even though I don't have solutions to either the Syrian or the Iranian problem - easy ones - that that's precisely what's happening in both cases.
CONAN: Well, again, we're not sure quite what happened in Syria with the chemical weapon or whether it was a chemical weapon or not. But nevertheless, once the president does issue one of these red lines - to mix metaphors, red lines in the sand, as they're sometimes called, is there a committee that gets to work saying OK, if they do it, we do X, Y or Z?
MILLER: Well, if only life worked that way, as a sort of linear progression inside the government. Let's be clear. The president has said repeatedly - he said it again in the presence of the Israeli prime minister - that Assad has lost authority, credibility, legitimacy to lead. He said two years ago.
MILLER: And yet these statements - the gap between these statements and our capacity to produce the outcomes that the president desires is enormous. And I fear, in the case of Syria, for example, it's absolutely clear to me - and I'm not critical of the president; others are - that he is extremely deliberate, careful and risk averse when it comes to committing American military forces, setting up a no-fly zone, let alone - or even, frankly, arming the opposition, which he's been very reluctant to do. So when he says today that there will be accountability if chemical weapons are transferred or used or loosed, the real question is: what does he mean? And I think his answer, by presidential standards - and again, I know it was off the cuff - was a bit rambling. In fact, it is kind of the opposite of red lines. It's, well, we'll survey the situation. We'll check all the facts, and then we'll get back to you.
And oh, by the way, if there is a response, it will be - quite understandably because we do not want to do this alone - it will be a response joined by the international community. All of this stuff, Neal, takes an enormous amount of time.
CONAN: Does that suggest they cross the red line and we're going to get an angry denunciation from the Security Council?
MILLER: Well, I mean part of the problem is you have today an inconsistency of what has actually occurred. You have the initial reports. The Russians say the rebels used chemical weapons. Hardly likely, it seems to me.
CONAN: And how would they know?
MILLER: Right, how would they know? The regime accuses the rebels of using chemical weapons. The rebels accuse the regime. Two Israeli ministers, one the recently appointed peace process czar, gives an interview to CNN and she says she thinks that chemical weapons have been used. And the president, while visiting Tzipi Livni's country, basically says that he has to go check. So - and again, I'm not being critical here. It's just that if we're trying to enforce quote-unquote red lines that are supposed to carry real power, real authority and real credibility, I'm afraid that we're doing the opposite.
And that's on Syria. On Iran there's a similar problem because the U.S. and Israel have different observations on what constitutes the violation of an Iranian red line. For the Israelis, for the prime minister, it is the capacity to produce, the capability to produce the weapon. The president has said repeatedly that he will not allow Iran to actually manufacture or obtain a nuclear weapon. The problem there is, of course, by the time the Iranians assemble all of the components and have the capacity to break out and rush for a weapon, toward a weapon, it may be too late. That's the Israeli argument.
So even in the case of Iran, the whole discussion of red lines has become, I'm afraid, more harmful than positive. And when red lines turn pink, Neal, which is essentially what's happening, or they basically disappear, the credibility of the United States is undermined.
CONAN: Is this terminology relatively new? You used to read of ultimatums or demarche.
MILLER: Well, for example, when Jim Baker, you know, met Tariq Aziz in Geneva...
CONAN: This is just before the first Gulf War.
MILLER: Right. There was a clear ultimatum. Iraq had certain things to do to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding their aggression against Kuwait. And if they didn't, the Bush - H.W. Bush administration made it unmistakably clear that there would be a consequence. And in this case it was the American effort to use military force, the largest projection of American military power since the Vietnam War, to push Saddam's forces out of Kuwait.
There was a clear ultimatum, or I guess you could use the word red line. The Iraqis evaluated and digested it, either believed that the Americans weren't serious or somehow they would become somehow lost in the desert, chose to ignore it, and the Bush administration basically delivered.
CONAN: There was another part of that meeting which we've never heard precisely about, and that was - there was no doubt, by the way, at that time that Saddam Hussein had chemical weapons and that if he used them in that conflict, terrible things would ensue.
MILLER: Yes. And as we know, the Iraqis, Saddam, did deploy them and the consequences of that deployment were never accounted for. So I think you have a variety of circumstances where the United States makes claims or other great powers or small powers. The Israelis are not a great power. They're a small power. They have repeatedly, last year, in 2012, talked, I think, too idly about the prospects of a unilateral Israeli attack.
And of course there was no attack, you know, which prompted one Israeli pundit to basically say, well, the Israelis should just attack because the Iranians are now concluding that the Israelis are paper tigers and there's no - what is intended as a deterrent becomes not a red line at all but a pink one. So I think this is the - a very fast and loose discussion of this subject. I just think the common sense interpretation is that our capacity to create red lines for Syria and Iran, to say the least, are not working.
CONAN: There were any number of times when any number of administrations said they would never allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons.
MILLER: Yeah. And I'm not as familiar with the North Korean situation as I am with the Middle Eastern situation, but there you have, you know, another example of - well, it's not just true of North Korea. You can extend it presumably to three of the other four non-permanent members of the Security Council that have nuclear weapons: the Pakistanis, the Indians, the North Koreans and of course the Israelis.
We have been unable - and we divide nuclear powers into those who we consider responsible - I suspect the Indians fall into that category, and the Israelis - and those that we consider not responsible. Clearly, the North Koreans, the Iranians, they are putative nuclear powers.
I'm not sure where the Pakistanis - are they our ally or are they are adversary? I'm still trying to sort that one out. But the point is, we have been unable to stop a determined small power through red lines or pink lines or sanctions or diplomacy, through the use of honey or vinegar, from acquiring nuclear weapons.
And this, I think, is the real cautionary tale when it comes to the Iranians. And it makes you wonder whether or not we'll be able, if the Iranians are determined to acquire a nuclear weapons capacity, to remain one screwdriver away, so to speak, or the weapon itself, whether or not we're prepared, or this administration is prepared, to do what the president has repeatedly said publicly and repeatedly said today that he would use - all options are on the table. I'm not arguing for war. What I'm arguing for is that the United States be clear about its objectives and have a strategy for how to achieve them and not to reach beyond our capacity, because it makes us look weak.
CONAN: We're talking with Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center about red lines and ultimatums. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And as you consider those red lines, is there anybody in a presidential circle - national security adviser, secretary of state - who says wait a minute, Mr. President, before you say that, you really have to consider what that might mean?
MILLER: You know, I think there's probably been a long discussion among members of this administration from the beginning about being careful with language. I think the president confused rhetoric and action for the first couple years of his administration, particularly on an issue like the Israeli-Palestinian problem, and he clearly sent a much different signal and tone today about reconciling what is real with what he would hope to achieve.
But I, you know, I think you also have an administration, Neal, that I think has created a foreign policy which it believes is well-suited at least to the needs and requirements of the American public. It is not Barack Obama's mission in life to get America into new and potentially open-ended Middle Eastern conflicts.
CONAN: Then why does he draw red lines?
MILLER: Well, I think that the answer to that is he is trying to find a balance between doing nothing and acquiescing in something he does not want to acquiesce in on one hand, and overdoing it.
And I think he somehow hopes that during the course of the next six to eight months, through the pressure of sanctions and the inducements of a serious diplomatic process, somehow war could be averted and a negotiated settlement on the issue of the enrichment of uranium in exchange for easing up and potentially over time eliminating sanctions on Iran can somehow be worked out.
I do not believe Barack Obama wants to go to war with Iran. I think he understands the consequences in the absence of an end-state(ph). But I also have a sense that he does not want to be the American president on whose watch Iran acquires a deliverable nuclear weapon.
So he's balancing, he's hoping, and he's trying to create some additional space on the part of the Israelis to give him time to pursue every conceivable option to marshal the support of the international community and to leave no stone unturned if in fact at the end of the road the result is going to be a projection of American military power against those Iranian nuclear sites. That to me, I think, is ultimately his rationale, that if in fact...
CONAN: I could see that, but that's the median term problem. He's got an immediate problem in Syria. If that was a chemical weapon, there is no good scenario. Either it was an act of state by Syria or one of their forces has gone rogue - neither of those is very good news - or they've lost control of their chemical weapons and the rebels did used it. That's equally disturbing.
MILLER: Right. Which means that over the next days or weeks, if in fact this somehow is not put back in the box, he will be forced to consider a range of options. Either trying to secure those sites, and with, you know, 60 odd sites and 300 metric tons of these agents dispersed in a very large country, he - the options are not good. I know we've been making contingency plans with Turkey and the Jordanians and no doubt with the Israelis. But the question is, in the end, what are the contingency plans?
He can punish the regime in retaliation for the use of those weapons. He can actually, you know, design a series of military strikes against leadership targets, against air assets. He could suppress Syrian air defenses, or 50, 60 percent of them as a sort of warning that if these weapons are used again, then there will be more retaliation and more response. But the notion that somehow we are going to be able to secure all of these weapons and prevent them from being used I think stretches the bounds of credulity to the breaking point.
CONAN: Nevertheless there's a red line. Aaron David Miller, thank you very much.
MILLER: Always a pleasure, Neal, truly.
CONAN: Aaron David Miller, vice president of New Initiatives at the Wilson Center, with us from his office in Washington. Tomorrow, we know foster kids can have a hard time settling in unfamiliar homes. What's it's like though for foster parents? Join us for that discussion tomorrow. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.