No-Longer-Thin Red Line

Red lines have been all over the news in the past couple of weeks. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said on CNN, “I think it’s important to place a red line before Iran, and I think that actually reduces the chance of a military conflict because, if they know there’s a point, a stage in the enrichment or other nuclear activities that they cannot cross because they’ll face consequences, I think they’ll actually not cross it.” That same day, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Iranians, “You have to place that red line before them now, before it’s too late.”

Netanhayu is hardly alone in using that metaphor to refer to is a particular point of progress in Iran’s presumed development of nuclear weapons, with the implication that the United States would under no circumstances permit the country to go past it. Mitt Romney has invoked the image frequently, and last week ABC’s George Stephanopoulos tried to press him on how his drawing of the line would differ from Barack Obama’s:

Stephanopolous: Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has suggested he wants more clear red lines from the United States. What is your red line with Iran?

Romney: Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world.  Iran with a nuclear weapon or with fissile material that can be given to Hezbollah or Hamas or others has the potential of not just destabilizing the Middle East. But it could be brought here. Hezbollah, which has presence in Latin America can be bring fissile material and threaten the United States by perhaps bringing it into the United States and suggesting they’d detonate it if we didn’t do certain things. Look, Iran as a nuclear nation is unacceptable to the United States of America.

GS: President Obama said exactly the same thing. He said it’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. So your red line is the same as his.

MR: Yeah …

William Safire would have been all over red line, but William Safire, alas, has left the building. So we next-generation language mavens have to step up to the plate.

The Oxford English Dictionary offers three definitions for red line as a noun phrase, none of them quite aligning with the Netanyahu sense:

  • Metonymically referring to British soldiers’ red uniforms, and usually preceded by the word thin: “the British army or a section of this, often with the implication of bravery or sturdy resistance against heavy odds.” James Jones’s 1962 war novel was called The Thin Red Line. (Thin blue line, referring to police, is a variant.)
  • The center line of an ice hockey rink.
  • And the closest match (and also used as a verb): “A mark on a gauge or dial indicating a safety limit or critical point; spec. one denoting a maximum operating speed. Hence: a maximum speed; a limiting situation, a limit (esp. for the purpose of safety).”

There is a venerable metaphor that means the same thing as the current red line, namely line in the sand. It gets an entry in the OED, with citations such as this 1978 one from The Washington Post: “Congress seems to have gone out of its way to draw a wide line in the sand in front of [Jimmy] Carter.”

The first use of red line I’ve been able to find with something close to this meaning is in a 1987 New York Times dispatch about the conflict between Chad and Libya: “Sporadic clashes since 1983 caused the French to redraw their no-trespass line, known as the red line, further north, along the 16th parallel.” That reference is to a literal, or at least, geographical line. A subsequent metaphorical one emanated, interestingly, from Iran, where in 1999 the Times reported that a Muslim cleric “asked the country’s top leaders to define ‘a red line for the revolution’ that no one would be allowed to cross.”

Generally speaking, the expression seems to be most widely applied to Middle East affairs. From a 2007 Washington Post piece: “[Iraqi President Jalal] Talabani said in an interview that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had crossed a ‘red line’ by speaking approvingly of Turkey’s threat of a cross-border offensive against the rebels.”

And with the Iran nuclear issue coming to the fore, red line has gone off the charts.

Why was it suddenly felt that red line was so much superior to line in the sand? Why is it used so frequently in and in reference to the Middle East (where, after all, sand is in abundant supply)? I have no idea. Where is William Safire when we need him?


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