The kerfuffle over “red lines” maps into some recent debates about how international crises work in an interesting way.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, and other Israeli officials are upset that the Obama administration is not setting clear “red lines” defining at what point the U.S. would attack Iran to try to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Their best case would probably be for Obama to publicly announce something like “we would consider Iran’s doing X, Y, and Z, or failing to stop doing X, Y, Z by such-and-such date, grounds for military action.”
They say they think the effect of such a public pronouncement would be to raise the likelihood that Iran would be deterred from proceeding, and so an attack would not be necessary. They also say that failure to make such a pronouncement may lead the Iranian leadership to infer weakness, giving them permission to go ahead.
So far, at least, the Obama administration seems reluctant to state a definite red line beyond which they would start a war.
It’s hard to make any sense of what’s going on here unless both the Israelis and Obama think it would be pretty costly for him to make a clear commitment and then not follow through on it. But why would it be costly?