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The Red Line Delusions

Israel, Ma’ariv

By Dr. Cellu Rozenberg


       No war in modern history broke out in the wake of the violation of predetermined red lines... The Iranian case is not outside the categories of human thought or outside history.


Translated by Viktoria Lymar

Edited by Steven Stenzler


6 May 2013



Wars don’t break out because of going up to some imaginary step decreed in advance - and the decision on placing a red line is merely an opening to delay action and show weakness.


Over the past few days, the subject of "red lines" regarding Iran has again risen to the public debate. The issue is but a mirage, a sweet illusion and one preferred by the policy makers or the professional echelon: We will rule on this. But the thing is that drawing red lines is a fiction. Does a real possibility exist in the hands of the policy makers or intelligence bodies to determine, accurately, red lines beyond which [we] must act? The answer is absolutely not.

Considering that setting red lines with respect to Iran is a function of intelligence interpretation, then the limitations for doing so are quite numerous. No war in modern history broke out in the wake of the violation of predetermined red lines. All the wars burst out as a result of immediate moves, or following a process ending with the crystallization of the decision to go to war. The Iranian case is not outside the categories of human thought or outside history.

To understand the problematic nature of determining clear red lines, let’s dwell on a key hardship the intelligence about what is happening in enemy countries, especially in totalitarian states where the decisions are made in a limited forum. At a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies, the head of the Research Division in the Military Intelligence Directorate [Aman] claimed that there had been use of chemical weapons in Syria. The U.S. Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State were not ready to confirm the information. Strange: for indeed, a wide-ranging dialogue is being held between Israel and the U.S. It stands to reason that what is known to the head of the Military Intelligence Research Division, is supposed to be known to the heads of the [American] administration. It's just that exactly here lies the problem: how to interpret the information? Does it justify American involvement, as promised by Obama?


Playing Tricks by Means of Rhetoric


Elegantly, however, clearly to all, Obama laid down a red line to Syria and here, the Syrians have broken the ultimatum. The obvious conclusion is that the U.S. should act immediately. It's only that this is not how statesmanship works. For the moment, Obama won’t order his army to attack Syria. This begs the conclusion that the U.S. itself does not meet the red lines it has set for itself.

So what to do? Delineate a new red line and continue to play tricks by means of rhetoric. It is reasonable to assume that Israel would like to see the U.S. planes bomb Damascus nevertheless, this won’t occur anytime soon.

This has also happened in regard to Iran: the Prime Minister established in his speech at the U.N. what a red line from Israel’s standpoint is. Now that various sources argue that Iran has crossed the red line, the Prime Minister argues that the line has not been crossed. If so, where do the gap and the failures in the exact assessment of what's going on in Iran stem from? Precisely from the inability to put a finger exactly on that fantasied red line. The difficulties in fixing red lines can be summed up by quoting from an interesting master's thesis that dealt with this field: "There is no relationship between the amount of information and its quality and its understanding and use... Studies have shown that the problems in data analysis in the era of information systems are still many, and that they suffer from the same failures of thinking which preceded the information age."

Furthermore, "cognitive biases arising from subconscious information processing methods... are intuitive." Just think: an informed evaluation and determination of a red line are not possible as a function of rational decision, but rather only as a subjective matter.

Iran is an issue with far-reaching consequences concerning the entire region, and certainly as it concerns Israel. It is advisable that the Israeli leaders act with necessary caution. The marking of red lines is dangerous not only because they are sheer figments of imagination, but because the other side may interpret non-response to breaching a red line as weakness. And this is already dangerous.


Original Hebrew article:


Image credit: Israel Hayom/Shlomo Cohen