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The U.S. is used to drawing red lines for adversaries. How does it work for allies?


The U.S. is accustomed to setting red lines for adversaries. But what does it mean to do so for one of America's closest allies? NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre joins us. Greg, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: A State Department report on Friday was related to a red line that President Biden has raised about Israel's conduct in the war. What did it say?

MYRE: So, the report was critical of Israel military actions that have led to the high Palestinian civilian death toll. And a key line in the report said, quote, "it's reasonable to assess that Israel has violated international humanitarian law." Now, it didn't reach any sweeping final conclusions, but it does reflect President Biden's increasing frustration with the way Israel is operating in Gaza.

And back in March, Scott, Biden was asked if a big Israel offensive in Rafah, the city on the southern edge of Gaza was crossing a red line, and he said it was. And the U.S. did say just this week that it is withholding more than 3,000 bombs for Israel and warning that additional aid could be stopped as well. Israel did take over a border crossing in Rafah this week on the frontier with Egypt. This is seen as a limited action so far, but it could just be the first stage of a broader offensive in Rafah.

SIMON: The U.S. and Israel have had disagreements over some past Israel military operations. How did other U.S. presidents respond when they felt Israel had crossed a line?

MYRE: Yeah. We have had multiple cases over the years. President Reagan withheld U.S. military support on a few occasions, though briefly, in the 1980s, and this was related to Israel military actions. President George H.W. Bush withheld loan guarantees over Jewish settlements in the West Bank in the early 1990s. The settlements have continued to grow over the years, despite opposition from successive U.S. administrations. So in these cases, we see that U.S. pressure didn't really seem to have much impact.

But over the past couple decades, we've seen U.S. presidents tell Israel when they thought it was time to wind up military operations in Gaza, usually after a couple weeks of fighting, and the Israelis did respond and pull back. We'll have to see this time. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is saying he's going to resist pressure from anywhere and everywhere, and that includes the White House.

SIMON: Greg, what's has happened in the past when the U.S. sets a red line not for an ally, but a rival.

MYRE: Yeah. The results, I would say, have been mixed at best. There was an incident back in 2012. President Obama warned the Syrian leader, Bashar Assad, not to use chemical weapons against his own people in the Syrian civil war. But he did. That really put Obama on the spot. What was he going to do about this red line that he had laid out? His administration did consider airstrikes, but decided against it, and he then faced a lot of criticism for not acting. This is often cited as an example of the risk of setting a red line then not following through. It's a little bit like telling your kid, you better behave or else, and there needs to be an or else.

SIMON: What about cases where red line is set, either formally or informally, and it has been successful in preventing something?

MYRE: Yeah. There are examples. Red lines can be an effective form of deterrence. NATO is marking its 75th anniversary this year. It famously has Article 5, which says an attack against one NATO member is an attack against all. And this has protected NATO countries quite well for generations. Another current example - the U.S. has warned China not to invade Taiwan. This has also held up for 75 years, though it's obviously a central part of the current national security debate. Can the U.S. warnings keep China from acting against Taiwan? And what should the U.S. do if China does act?

SIMON: NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks so much.

MYRE: Sure thing, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.