Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen

From the islands of the South China Sea to Korea's DMZ, the tribes of Arabia across Africa and throughout Europe, red lines have been setting agendas and changing history for centuries.

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Chapter 1: Flashpoints, or What is a Red Line?

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Chapter 1: Flashpoints, or What is a Red Line?

In Episode 1 of A Red Line in the Sand, a companion podcast to the book of the same title, author David Andelman sets the stage. He explains what red lines are and why they matter.

Red lines can be geographic, diplomatic, political, or - most dangerously - military. They can be concepts, trade pacts, or physical barriers. The Iron Curtain in Cold War Europe, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the 38th parallel on the Korean peninsula, and the line between desert and jungle in Chad - all of these are red lines with potentially lethal consequences.

David Andelman: For years now, I've been studying something called red lines. They’re mysterious and they can be a little dangerous, even deadly at times. They are the boundaries between good and evil, rich and poor….war and peace….even survival and destruction.

I'm David Andelman, author of the book A Red Line in the Sand and for the next 12 weeks, I’ll be your guide through the thickets of red lines … the ones that divide North and South Korea, or that set Adolf Hitler off on his manic slash-and-burn through Europe at the outbreak of World War II. There are red lines in Afghanistan and in Iraq that thousands of Americans died trying to either pierce or defend. We’ll explore these red lines and more, a half hour at a time.

We'll see what kinds work and what don't. And why there are more red lines today than at any other moment in history.

In our first episode today, we will talk about the limits and abuses of red lines, how they work or don’t, and the toxic role they can often play. I’ll also suggest how things might turn out better...if we can only learn from the past.

I was present for the creation of many of these lines, as a war correspondent. To begin today, let me take you back to one of my earliest run-ins with a red line.

It was August 1983. The summer daytime temperatures hovered north of 100 degrees. I’d just arrived in Chad, a sprawling African nation whose territory is divided neatly between the southern reaches of the vast Sahara Desert and the northern reaches of sub-Saharan jungle. The line that cuts Chad in two could be all but drawn with an X-Acto knife. It is one of the earliest, most personal red lines I’d ever encountered…a line that had existed since geologic time.

I'll be your host in this podcast as we hopscotch around the world in 12 chapters. Together we’ll examine the red line boundaries that have changed history, set political agendas, spilled blood and smoothed paths toward peace.

Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, sits just twelve degrees above the equator. My mission for CBS News, nearly four decades ago, was to report on a modern danger—the threat by Libyan strongman Colonel Muammar Qaddafi to push south across the Sahara. There was a quite literal line in the sand that French president François Mitterrand had drawn and pledged to defend. The impulses of an expansionist Qaddafi needed to be restrained—prevented from breaking out of his boundaries and expanding nearly unchecked into the heart of the African continent.

This line dividing Chad, north from south, desert from jungle, that Qaddafi must not cross was a red line of the most dangerous sort.

When I arrived in Chad, war seemed very much on the horizon. To counter Qaddafi, another dictator had arrived from the east. Mobutu Sese Seko from Kinshasa, capital of the nation he called Zaire that was really the Congo before and after his 30 year reign. He came to show his solidarity with his neighbor, Chad and its intention to hold its red line. Mobutu's customized DC-10 landed in late morning—clearly timed to make the network evening news broadcasts in Europe and America. And indeed, from the moment he stepped from the door sporting a leopard-skin hat and dark tunic with large sunglasses, it was pure television.

Waiting at the foot of the stairs after his plane taxied to a stop was Chad's president Hissène Habré, clad head-to-toe in white. At the end of a long red carpet was Mobutu’s huge, personal Jeep, customized with tires taller than I was. The two mounted this elephantine vehicle and it lumbered off slowly toward town….slowly, because jogging ahead was an honor guard in military camouflage fatigues, chanting rhythmically Mo-BU-tu, Mo-BU-tu, Mo-BU-tu—a chant taken up by crowds lining his route. Mobutu himself, standing tall and unsmiling in the Jeep, brandished an enormous carved staff and raised it in salute to his apparently adoring fans who welcomed him with songs and chants…

He'd come to show his solidarity. Supported by 2,000 Zairian troops, he declared that "Chad does not stand alone". Mobutu, Zaire, the French were all prepared to defend this red line so that it would quite simply not be breached.

There was no war that day or the next, or the next. Qaddafi never did send his forces south across the red line in the sand. We hung around for two very long months in the best hotel in N'Djamena which we shared with beetles large enough to have thrown a saddle over and ridden from the room. We drank Belgian beer with French Foreign Legionnaires who'd joined up with Mobutu's own forces….The legionnaires had stayed behind while their advance party had headed 500 miles to the north …

At the oasis of Faya Largeau, they were designed to serve as the trip wire, should Qaddafi's forces appear in a swirl of desert sand. This red line served its purpose. It held war at bay.

But in many ways, this was a far simpler time. There were no global terrorist networks. Red lines like these have proliferated in recent years across every continent …. reaching a toxic apex in numbers and virulence today. There have never been more red lines at any one point in history than now. Some of this responsibility must fall to America’s recent president --Donald Trump. But his often unhinged approach to international trouble is not the only explanation.

The very nature of red lines seems to be poorly understood by rulers and governments who have brought them to life or sustained them. In the past half century, I have visited many such regions on five continents, reported on their anatomies, and the players who established, then defended each red line. By examining their origins, their arc, we may have a better sense of those few that have succeeded and the all too many that have failed.

Those years when I traveled to hotspots like Chad also marked the depths of the Cold War. The boundary that divided the NATO alliance led by the U.S. from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact seemed unbreakable…red lines were only just beginning to come into focus.

But even then it was clear to me: there were red lines that worked and those that did not. And there were still many world leaders who tested their limits. One of these was Barack Obama. It was an off-the-cuff remark about the use of chemical weapons by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad that brought the whole concept of red lines to a boil.

President Barack Obama: We have been very clear to the Assad regime but also to other players on the ground that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

DA: This was an impromptu news conference in the White House that President Obama called to talk about some budget matters when a reporter asked about Assad.

BO: We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that's a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons that would. That would change my calculations significantly.

DA: But contrary to this confident assertion, there was little to no certainty within the region or among America's allies. And as we shall see in episode six when we examine this red line in greater detail, clarity is one of the central components of any red line….to be established or maintained.

These central components also include a determined will to enforce the establishment of any such line, the ability to confirm the seriousness of such a threat, as well as its conformity to international law or custom.

Red lines as legitimate expressions of international law means they must be used to enforce existing law, rather than creating new and questionable precedent. The seizure of territories, as China is doing in the South China Sea, does not conform to any international law. To be sure, their effectiveness is not necessarily dependent on their legitimacy. The threat alone may be enough to deter unwanted behavior, whether or not it conforms to accepted international standards.

When red lines fail, it's largely when their basic structures are not clear—particularly where and how they are drawn. A national boundary, for instance, is quite clear, so crossing one can certainly be an act of war. But disputed boundaries on the sea or in the air are less tangible and open to misinterpretation.

The targets of any red line must also be persuaded that whoever is establishing it is determined to enforce it and that there will be profound consequences for not respecting it. A good example of this principle is Hitler and the Anglo-French pledge to guarantee Polish independence. Nazi tanks crossing Germany's frontier with Poland would mean war. There was little more than bluster in 1939, when Hitler swallowed all of Czechoslovakia. So just a few months later, Hitler thought he'd be quite free to roll his blitzkrieg across the Polish frontier. Hitler also believed that the benefit of violating that line was worth any risk. Such a calculus of cost versus benefit has destroyed many red lines since.

The author of any line must assume that it may be tested at any moment. How far exactly can it be pressed?

Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water and he will immediately hop out. But put him in cool water, then gradually raise the temperature, degree by degree and he will likely boil to death. Red lines must also be carefully tempered. Too firm and they could quickly lead to violence. Too faint and they risk being crossed inadvertently with potentially dire consequences.

Finally, red lines must be clearly drawn from the get-go in each of these respects: nature, intentions and consequences.

The roadmap to an effective red line is clear and simple, though too rarely followed.

First, red lines must be carefully drawn and well thought out—not an off-the-cuff remark like Barack Obama’s chemical weapons red line in Syria. Each element must be clear from the start, including an utter determination to defend it. The military option must never be renounced—something that Donald Trump has taken as a given, though many of his predecessors did not. But that alone is hardly enough to assure that a target won’t step across, especially if they do a cost-benefit analysis and believe it’s worth the risk.

For example, only large numbers of body bags returning to the Soviet Union from Afghanistan could convince the Kremlin that defending that line was not in their best, long-term interests. Only then did Soviet troops begin to pull back.

Moreover, in these days of multiple, often overlapping red lines, can the violation of one avoid touching off a daisy chain of fault lines? Sadly, there are more operating today than at any other moment in history—a recurring theme of this series. In part, that's because most have been hastily drawn with little thought given to their structure, or especially their consequences. Not surprisingly, they must constantly be re-drawn and shifted.

Let’s take a pause here for a little commercial message.

If you’re enjoying this podcast, you’ll love my book! Where there are even more wonderful yarns and heart-stopping ideas to keep you awake at night. As NBC’s Tom Brokaw, one of my earliest readers, wrote:

“As we are learning every day, the world is an ever more dangerous place, on a hair trigger from East to West, North to South. David Andelman, one of our most experienced national security journalists, gives us a timely, insightful analysis of the dangers and prospective solutions in this very welcome book.”

And now, we’re back.

The lines surrounding Libya and Chad 30 years ago have morphed today into a spiderweb criss-crossing a dozen central African nations. This part of the continent is huge—at least 2.4 million square miles and 278 million people. Today it is swathed in red lines that have developed since the turn of the millennium and the arrival of a host of terrorist groups.

The source of these pernicious networks of red lines have come to define the new world order. Propelled too often by ignorance and arrogance by those who laid them out, from thousands of miles away, on maps they hardly recognized, such lines have transformed the lives of vast numbers of people whose languages, rituals, hopes and aspirations are hardly appreciated by leaders who have sought to define them.

If in the past century there has been a single most remarkable and least heralded political and diplomatic gambit, it is the red line. It is a concept rooted deep in human history, back to Biblical times—the proverbial “line in the sand." Step across that line and face the consequences. Or not.

A line in the sand provoked the first large-scale launch of advanced cruise missiles in history, by Donald Trump, on Syria. Others have led to Russian interventions from the Crimea to the Euphrates. And other threats linger over our heads today—nuclear arsenals, real or anticipated, of North Korea and Iran; Chinese expansion across the South China Sea; Afghanistan and across the Hindu Kush into Pakistan; not to mention sub-Saharan Africa where newly arrived terrorists threaten a stability maintained for centuries by nomadic tribes.

Today, a conservative accounting suggests at least forty red lines worldwide, and multiplying on every continent. And this horrific geopolitical reality may be laid directly at the feet of one man: Donald Trump. The American president, whether by ignorance, intolerance or just plain hubris, has been responsible for the proliferation of such challenges to the world, regional, or local order.

Academics call this “coercive diplomacy.” That’s a polite term for a loaded gun to the head of someone you want something from. Often this takes the form of a lack of action, with similarly pernicious consequences. But this inaction may prove to be more ruinous than if the gun had never been held to the head, the red line never established. Imagine what might have happened had Hitler’s panzer divisions been held back for a year, even six months, while England and France built their forces.

To understand the scale of any challenge posed by a red line, we must understand its origins, the density of the webs that exist today, how they have evolved, and how many individuals are directly impacted by them. But especially they should be evaluated by their success or failure. And as we travel around the world, examining any number of lines, we will see most vividly how and why they work, or fail.

Four decades ago, the world was very different from today. It was the final years of communism versus capitalism, with one superpower dominant on each side - the Soviet Union and the United States. It was also the final years of Mutually Assured Destruction that assured world peace.

Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, refers to the ability of one superpower’s nuclear arsenal to withstand a first strike of nuclear weapons and retaliate, utterly destroying the other. This apocalyptic red line was drawn from the moment the Soviets joined the United States in the nuclear club. At its peak of power, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies occupied the entire territory from Eastern and Central Europe across Eurasia to the Pacific. NATO occupied much of the rest of Europe and North America.

The challenge came from the world's newest and, as it would turn out, most persistent red line. Winston Churchill defined it in an address in 1946:

Winston Churchill: From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe, All these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere…..

DA: Nowhere else in the world, however, did any single nation have the ability to establish a red line network of comparable power or toxicity.

In Asia, a 75-year-old line divides north from south on the Korean peninsula. In an effort to expand its territorial ambitions, China has begun building artificial islands and fortifying existing islands, atolls and assorted ocean-born real estate in the South China Sea, constructing militarized perimeters which it dares others to cross. These include the Spratleys and Paracels, both sets of tiny islands scattered across a vast ocean.

Any one of these could become a flashpoint. We’ll return to them in Episode Four.

In the Middle East, similar lines have grown up organically since just after World War II. Palestinians and Israelis face down in Gaza and the West Bank. Kurds straddle the frontiers of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. And since the hostage crisis that ended in 1981, Iran was very much a red line unto itself. Today, Iran and its proxies, Israelis and Arabs, have established or enforced red lines that envelop nearly 300 million people across seven countries over more than 2 million square miles in the Middle East. These lines, often quite literally in the sand, have spawned ongoing wars between Israelis and Palestinians, Yemenis and Houthis, effectively surrogates for Saudi Arabia and Iran. The United States and Russia have chosen sides across the region, establishing their own limits with lethal impact.

Spreading conflicts within and across frontiers have also spawned a vast body of displaced persons and migrants. The United States National Intelligence Council estimated more than 200 million international migrants have been created in this century alone. Many have been compelled to cross red lines, often fearing for their lives, to reach a semblance of safety. In the process, this has placed immense burdens on nations that have established or supported barriers, real or figurative, that sent them on their journey.

So what has changed in this world to draw so many more red lines than just a few decades ago? To lead so many statesmen, often on an apparent whim, to create barriers that have left so many dead in their wake? How has the chemistry of the political, diplomatic or military soil shifted so radically to allow such lines to sprout?

These are just some of the questions we'll answer as we jump across continents and explore each of these red lines that are of existential importance to the global community.

Today, it seems that wherever there is a crisis, where men, women, and children are under fire and dying, there is a red line. And everywhere today, the United States is present in one form or another at the nexus of so many of these, often of its own making.

America’s vast and pernicious role is hardly surprising. Red lines are defined by power. Usually established by the most powerful nations, they are expected to defend them. When they don’t, when they pull back from confrontation, is when the structure begins to unravel. Step across it and pay the price. That line may be geographic, diplomatic or political, especially military. It may be a concept, a political position, even a trade pact--a line between desert and jungle, the use or abuse of chemical weapons. In our 12-episode journey, we will uncover each of these types across continents and oceans.

We can only postulate about the future, of course. But outlines of the red lines regime a half century from now are already beginning to crystalize. The fragmentation of nation states along ethnic, religious or cultural lines may only intensify the enforcement of minority-rule.

Demagogues emulating Donald Trump, and other leaders who see regional unrest as an opportunity—China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Venezuela—risk the establishment of dangerous or destabilizing lines. Each is deeply opposed to the interests of the people they rule, while also serving to entrench or extend their own power.

Red lines are transforming the very nature of future warfare, shrinking the need for large standing armies. Instead, small, highly mobile, regional forces and high-tech, unmanned weaponry increasingly dominate today's battlefield. Even the most primitive tribal force is capable of fielding weaponry of astonishing lethality using basic kits from Toys-r-Us, modified by underground bomb makers.

And then there is the legal framework of red lines that runs long and deep. Beyond simply ensuring respect for international agreements and norms of behavior, there are a host of other issues that cry out to be defined.

One big question is who actually has the right to establish a red line? In the United States, the Constitution holds that Congress alone has the power to declare war. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went before a joint session of Congress.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt: Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us….... I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

DA: Japan had crossed a red line. And Roosevelt announced that the U.S. would reestablish and defend it. Congress promptly gave him that right, as it would do repeatedly through the years from Korea to Vietnam to the Middle East and beyond.

Still, red lines as legitimate expressions of international law means they must be used to enforce existing law rather than creating new and questionable doctrine. The targets of any red line must also be convinced that whoever has established it is determined to enforce it and that there will be profound consequences for not doing so.

Throughout history, leaders rarely act in a vacuum. Neither do red lines appear or are maintained in a vacuum. But today, their foundations all too often appear to wobble between whim and hubris. A dangerous recipe for world order. As we begin to hopscotch around the world and through time, looking at lines then and now, we must ask what makes one line work, and another fail? Such fault lines appear far more prone to failure than to success. And while those that are successful can succeed spectacularly, those that failed are often utter and historic catastrophes.

Next week we'll look at the origins of the red line, the epic battle that coined the term, then it will be off across the globe.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll check out my new book from Pegasus, "A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen."

If you’re enjoying the show, make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts to help other fans of history and adventure find the show.

Red Lines is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. My special thanks to producer Isabel Robertson, engineer Sean Rule-Hoffman, and executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.

Visit evergreenpodcasts.com to access a transcript and get more info on the show.

Subscribe to the podcast to see the next episode in your feed the moment it’s published. See you next week!

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