BMI View: The US's failure to take military action against Syria for allegedly crossing a 'red line' on the use of chemical weapons does not mean that Washington would not uphold its security commitments elsewhere. However, there are separate reasons to question whether the US would intervene militarily on behalf of some of its allies in Eurasia.
One of the arguments put forward for a US strike on Syria in late August/early September was to uphold the Obama administration's - and by extent, Washington's - 'credibility' on the world stage . US President Barack Obama announced in August 2012 that any utilisation of a 'whole bunch' of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad would constitute a 'red line' that would change the calculus in favour of American military intervention. Since that time, a nd prior to the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people outside Damascus, there have been several incidents in which small amounts of chemical weapons have reportedly been used, but none of these was considered to have breached a 'red line'. Proponents of military action have argued that if the US lets the Assad regime breach Obama's 'red line' with impunity, other countries that seek to challenge the US (principally Iran and North Korea) would feel that they could do so without retribution.
Not All 'Red Lines' Are Created Equal
In our view, it is misleading to assume that the Obama administration's failure to punish Syria militarily for its alleged use of chemical weapons on August 21 means that the White House does not take its security commitments elsewhere seriously. The civil war in Syria does not directly threaten the US, and it was clear that the main beneficiaries of US military action would have been the Syrian rebels, many of whom are radical Islamists aligned with al-Qaeda.
By contrast , the US is formally committed by treaty to the defence of all of its NATO allies (27 other countries) , as well as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand (Taiwan falls into a somewhat more ambiguous status) . In addition, we believe that the US's repeated warnings that it would not allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons (which is an informal red line) should be taken far more seriously than the red line drawn against Syria's chemical weapons, because there is broad consensus within the US political establishment that Tehran poses a far bigger national security threat than Damascus.
It is also worth noting that the absence of 'red lines' elsewhere does not mean that the US would not take action if a certain geopolitical event took place that visibly threatened its interests.
Future Scenarios In Which US Commitments Might Be Tested
Below, we discuss countries and situations in which US commitments might be tested in the future.
Iran: The US has repeatedly stated that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and has kept the option of military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities on the table. Nevertheless, there is considerable doubt about whether Washington would be willing to risk a regional war to prevent Iran from going nuclear, which explains why Israel has stated its own willingness to act alone against Iran if necessary . Due to Israel's relative proximity to Iran, and the fact that Iranian leaders have publicly threatened the country, Israeli defence planners feel much more worried about the prospect of a nuclear Iran than the US. At the present time, Iran, under a new, relatively moderate president , Hassan Rouhani, plans to resume nuclear negotiations with the US and EU in the autumn of 2013. We believe that if these negotiations fail, then Israel, and quite possibly the US itself, would conclude that Tehran will never give up its nuclear programme, and thus take military action, possibly in the first half of 2014. That said, Iran could maintain sufficient ambiguity over its nuclear programme and avoid crossing any US or Israeli 'red lines'. Thus, conflict can still be avoided.
The US has also previously declared that any attempt by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz to international shipping would be a 'red line' for military intervention. We believe the US is sincere in this regard, given that the Strait is one of the key maritime chokepoints in the world, and given that the US's East Asian allies are highly dependent on oil imports from the Middle East.
North and South Korea: Although South Korea was not covered by a US security guarantee, t he US came to the country's defence following its invasion by the North in 1950, and waged a three-year conflict at the cost of 34,000 American l ives . Following the Korean War, the US signed a defence treaty with South Korea, and s ince the 1950s, Washington has maintained tens of thousands of its troops in the country to reinforce its defences. Although the George W. Bush administration reduced the US military presence in South Korea from 38,000 troops to 28,000, we believe that Washington would come to the South's defence , if it faced a conventional attack from the North. Indeed, under current military arrangements, the US would automatically assume control of the South Korean armed forces in wartime. (South Korea is due to rec laim wartime control in December 2015, or thereafter.) In addition, the US and South Korea hold annual military exercises designed to prepare for a hypothetical war with the North .
That said, there are several blurred lines on the Korean Peninsula. For example, in March 2010, the North sank the Southern warship Cheonan , and in November of that year, the North shelled a Southern island in the disputed West Sea area. These were major provocations by Pyongyang, but neither Seoul nor Washington took any military action. South Korea has subsequently toughened its rules of military engagement with the North, meaning that future provocations by Pyongyang would likely receive a military response. However, the new guidelines remain untested. We suspect that in the event of a new North-South confrontation at sea or in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates the Koreas, Washington would probably let Seoul deal with the confrontation at hand, provided that it does not escalate into an all-out war.
The most visible breach of American 'red lines' in Korea is the existence of North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Previous US presidents have declared that Pyongyang cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, but the Communist state has ignored Washington through deception, stalling tactics, and outright defiance , and has tested nuclear weapons on three occasions . America's inability to coerce North Korea stems from the fact that any use of force by the US would probably trigger a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula that could bring about substantial economic and human devastation. Although this restraint on the part of the US is understandable, North Korea's successful nuclearisation in the 2000s arguably serves as a role model for Iran to emulate.
Japan: During the Cold War, the US-Japan security treaty served to deter a Soviet invasion of Japan itself. Despite the end of the Cold War, the US maintains 47,000 troops in Japan, mostly in the southern island of Okinawa. In more recent years , American and Japanese defence planners have focused on the rise of China. Japan's current concerns centre on the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea. The dispute has re-emerged in recent years, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has threatened the use of force in the event that China tries to change the status of the islands. In December 2012, the US Congress approved a defence bill that reaffirmed Washington's commitment to defence of the Senkaku islands. Nevertheless, there are reasons to question whether the US would risk military conflict with China merely to restore Japanese control of the islands, given that they are so small and uninhabited. After all, the US did not provide direct military support to Britain when the latter used military force to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina in 1982. The risks for the US from a hypothetical Senkaku Islands war would be higher than they were in the Falklands.
The Philippines: The Philippines disputes with China parts of the South China Sea, which Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea. The US has been committed to the Philippines' defence since the 1950s, and maintained tens of thousands of troops in the country until 1992, when they were asked to leave. Since 2002, the US has deployed a small number of special forces soldiers in the Philippines to help its military fight Islamist rebels. In more recent years, the Philippine government, like several other countries, has come to fear China's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea. In the unlikely event of a Sino-Philippine war in the body of water , we suspect that the US would refrain from direct military conflict with China, as the risks would be too high, and the rewards too low.
Taiwan: The US maintains ambiguity over whether it would defend Taiwan from a hypothetical Chinese invasion. The then-president Bill Clinton sent two aircraft carriers near the island in 1996 to deter China from carrying out any military provocations, as Taiwan held its first direct presidential election. However, China's military power has increased substantially since then, and China is now much more important to the US and the world economy. Therefore, the US is likely to be far more cautious , if there w ere ever a repeat of the 1996 crisis. Similarly, although the then-president George W. Bush stated in 2 001 that the US would do "whatever it takes" to help Taiwan defend itself from China, the stakes have increased dramatically since that time. Indeed, in 2005 a Chinese major- general warned that China might respond with nuclear weapons against the US if it attacked China in any conflict over Taiwan. Although the prospects of a Chinese attack on Taiwan would appear remote, it should not entirely be precluded.
Central And Eastern Europe: Several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, namely the Baltic states and Georgia, fear Russia's increasing assertiveness under President Vladimir Putin. These fears have arguably been heightened by the lack of a firm US response to Russia's brief invasion of Georgia in 2008. Although Georgia was not covered by any US security treaty, it was one of the most pro-American countries in Eurasia, and committed to joining NATO. The US's relatively mild criticism of Russia , and its subsequent 'reset' in bilateral relations in 2009, raised concerns in the Baltic states about their own security guarantee s from Washington. We deem these concerns as understandable , as the US might well be reluctant to risk even a geographically limited conventional war with Russia to defend the European periphery. That said, we also doubt that the Kremlin wo uld take such bold a step as invading a NATO member state in peacetime. Moreover, t here are no obvious triggers for conflict between Russia and the Baltics, other than occasional tensions between ethnic Russians and ethnic Baltic peoples .
Red Lines Can Never Be Certain
The US's f ailure to take military action against Syria for the Assad regime's apparent breach of the 'red line' should not be reason to assume that Washington would not uphold other red lines. Rather, any assessment about the US's security commitments elsewhere should be based on their own merits and circumstances . Despite the US's war-weariness and substantial debt burden (which is forcing cuts to defence spending), Washington has sufficient military might to enforce most breaches of 'red lines'. The bigger danger, however, is that the US no longer feels capable of fighting two sustained ground wars at the same time. This means that in the event of a simultaneous major conflict in the Middle East and Korea, for example, Washington might struggle to respond in full force.