Red Lines in the Sand

A line in the sand is just that: a momentary, transient line that will disappear soon enough. It is what we used to do as kids, mark a line in the sand with our toes or fingers, signifying a border between two groups at play. Usually some type of a war game. Yet shortly, in the heat of the battle, the line will be distorted, and ultimately erased by our running bare feet. And if not by us than by the sea waves crushing into shore, which will sweep over it and smooth it quickly as if it had never been drawn. Unlike the common belief – that a line in the sand meant never to be crossed – it is exactly the opposite: meant to be crossed soon, erased and forgotten by man’s play and war, or by nature’s forces.

A red line, however, is remarkably different. It is meant to be kept and observed. It is meant not to be played with or crossed over. It is meant as a warning, signifying something specific – such as the use of chemical weapons; or enrichment of uranium above a certain level – with grave consequence to the violator. Nature – other than man’s nature – plays no role in in this equation; it is entirely man-made. Leaders make a statement to that effect, declaring red lines, and they are supposed to follow through on their warning. Or else…

Or else they will be facing dire repercussions. Just as in the case of President Obama and his red line on Syria’s chemical weapon use. Here’s what he said: “… a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch (what a poor use of a word, “bunch,” for such an eloquent speaker and thinker), of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” We will not stay on the sidelines any more, he declared. We have red lines now. We will react forcefully. We will punish you. And yet, when push came to shove, and when Syria President Assad crossed that red line and used some of his large arsenal of chemical weapons – torturing and killing indiscriminately many men, women and children – the most powerful man on earth, supposedly, had failed to act and react.

Here’s way. Not because of Congress, which had seemed ready to reject his request before the Russians intervened; and not because of the American people, who by a wide margin had let their Congressional representatives know that they are opposed to any new American military intervention in the barrel of fire that is the current Middle east; and not because our longtime ally, PM David Cameron of Britain had suffered a humiliating defeat in his own Parliament; and not because the UN was still investigating whether indeed chemical weapons had been used; not even because – at least media wise – Russian President Vladimir Putin had outplayed Obama in this international chess game; but because, dear readers, he was not prepared to act and attack!

When a leader sets a red line, he better be ready to act on it before he even mentions – or draws, as Israel PM Netanyahu had done – the red line. His army and his intelligence agencies must be ready to act and react. And once that red line had been crossed, as it happened in Syria recently, that leader must unleash his force and come true on his warning. Otherwise, he’d be caught weak and indecisive, his pants down for all to see. You act on your warning – first rule of a strong leader – then you give answers and explanations, or go to Congress. But he was not ready to act, Mr. Obama, and was therefore exposed naked for all to see, and lost all credibility.

Now, while I’m not calling on Mr. Netanyahu to attack Iran nuclear facilities anytime soon – especially not now when there is a new president and the tone and manner have shifted somewhat – I do hope that PM Netanyahu is ready to act on his own, by now infamous, red line; drawn last year at the United Nation for all the world to see. America can survive, probably, such a blunder and humiliation. But Israel is another story, and it cannot allow itself such a setback. It lives and exists in the Middle East, the tinder box of the world, after all.

If this sound as an endorsement for Israel to attack Iran, or for another military intervention by America in the Middle East, nothing can be further from the truth. And while – as a son of Holocaust survivors – the distinction between gas producing chemical weapons and conventional weapons is very clear to me, I do not see much of a difference; both in aim and in results. The vast majority of the hundred-thousand people already dead in Syria were killed by conventional weapons. A thousand ton bomb landing on top of an apartment building, leaving hundreds of civilians, families and all, dead in its rubble, is just as vicious, appalling and wrong. My point was meant only to clarify the use, and overuse, of the term “Line in the Sand,” and reflect on the truth ingrained in the warning of “Red Line.”

About the Author
Hillel Damron was born in Kibbutz Hephzibah to parents who survived the Holocaust; he was an officer of elite paratroop unit who was wounded in battle; studied film and became a director of TV documentaries, video shorts and a feature film. Damron is the author of three novels, short stories and a political blog; winner of Moment Magazine’s 2011 Memoir Contest and is the past executive director of the Hillel House, at University of Davis, California.