At a press conference yesterday shortly after his arrival in Japan, President Obama was asked if the U.S. would be willing to intervene militarily if China attempts to retake the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) islands.
The president replied vaguely that “commitment to Japan's security is absolute,” and that the United States will honor its obligations to help defend all lands Japan controls — part of the terms of a mutual defense treaty the two countries signed in 1951. But when asked if Chinese military use would constitute a “red line” for U.S. action, Obama would not answer “yes” outright.
It was an awkward moment, for which Obama has only himself to blame. Obama’s foreign policy has been haunted by the asinine phrase since a press conference about Syria on August 10th, 2012, when he said that “a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” in the country would be a “red line” that could lead to U.S. military action. The ad-lib reportedly took even his own advisors by surprise, and the moment was trotted out again and again in the months that followed as evidence grew of Assad’s chemical weapons use.
Obama was eventually saved from having to enforce the line by a last-minute Russian brokered deal to destroy Assad’s chemical stockpiles, though now it appears the Syrian regime may be pushing its luck again.
The “red line” phrase, which may have originally been borrowed from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has continually invoked it – sometimes with graphical aids – in reference to Iran’s nuclear program, has quickly become a staple U.S. foreign-policy cliche. John McCain has said that the U.S. needs a red line on nuclear activity in Iran; comments about weapons in North Korea made by Tom Donilan, Obama’s national security advisor, were recast as a “red line” in the press. In February, the president had said there would be “consequences” if people “stepped over a line” in the Ukraine crisis.
As Russia subsequently ignored U.S. threats and annexed the Crimea, critics have seen this as the president “disregarding his own red line”. “Red lines" in various situations, whether actually stated by the president or not, are relentlessly pointed to by conservatives as proof of his wavering and weak leadership.
So, Obama can’t exactly be surprised to encounter questions about red lines in Asia. But it is also a region they are particularly ill-suited for. Relationships there are so important, and long-simmering tensions are so fraught, that taking a rigid view on anything is bound to upset an important ally. With tensions between Japan and its neighbors mounting in recent months—China (which Obama will not visit on this trip) and South Korea (which he will visit) are incensed by what they see as Japan’s recent embrace of nationalism and revisionist history— having to answer such questions is especially unhelpful for a president trying to manage good relations with all three.
The president will also be visiting other allies with whom the United States has security commitments—a mutual defense agreement with the Philippines and a long-standing partnership with Malaysia. A rising China might make them jittery about the strength of these ties, given the toothless responses to “red line” issues from Damascus to Donetsk. Obama’s careless remark, then, has made it easy to summarize doubts about American inconstancy into one pithily damning critique: it crosses red lines.
Plenty of statesmen are prone to saying thoughtless things. If you are running for office, it may cost you the office. If you are in office, the consequences are a much bigger headache.