America’s elastic red line

A deadly Israeli attack on a displacement camp in Rafah sparked global outrage. But there were no consequences in Washington, making it the latest in a long list of red lines the US has walked back

Al Majalla explores how the notion of a red line has become unconvincing in American diplomacy.
Sara Gironi Carnevale
Al Majalla explores how the notion of a red line has become unconvincing in American diplomacy.

America’s elastic red line

When an air strike killed dozens of civilians sheltering in a refugee camp in Rafah, the horrific scenes sparked an international outcry, but not just at Israel, who had launched the attack. The wave of condemnation also reached the United States.

There were expectations that the White House would accept that the strikes clearly crossed what President Joe Biden described as a “red line” over civilian casualties caused by Israeli military action reaching Rafah. His words implied that there would be consequences for Israel if it ignored the warning. And then came Washington’s verdict: the massacre on 26 May did not cross Biden's red line.

This position matched how officials had framed Biden’s red line comment after the president made it on 9 March. Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security advisor, downplayed the idea of a red line in the same month Biden spoke, portraying it as a media obsession rather than a component of US policy. For his part, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken went further in May, saying, “We don’t talk about red lines when it comes to Israel”.

This sequence of events underlines two issues. The first is, unsurprisingly, the US’s unwavering support for Israel. The second is how the notion of a red line has become unconvincing in American diplomacy.

Biden’s White House is not unique in this. The presidencies of Donald Trump and Barack Obama were marked by a similarly unclear approach to red lines. They also resorted to selective interpretations of events to push back against global perceptions that their red lines were crossed. All three US administrations show that when Washington invokes a red line, it is more a soft code for deterrence than a concrete threat.

In every single case in which one was mentioned or implied by each of the last three White Houses, an effective deterrent was not achieved, leading to public speculation over US credibility. And the ground invasion of Rafah is not the only red line set by the Biden administration. Washington recently signalled that Ukraine can now use US weapons to strike inside Russia. It initially barred such a move, fearing it would spark a new world war. That lapsed condition now looks like another red line turned fuzzy.

Here, Al Majalla looks at some of the others, including where they have been set and what they actually mean for US foreign policy, at a time when a shift in understanding of how the term is used is needed.


Supposedly, clear signals on Washington’s limits were sent to Beijing, also over the war in Ukraine. The US threatened China with sanctions in response to any “material support” for Russia’s war. In June of that year, the US Department of Commerce put five Chinese companies on the trade blacklist due to their alleged military support for Russia. However, Washington officials clarified that the Chinese state was not seen as going against US wishes.

Less than a year later, the US alleged that China was granting Russia nonlethal military assistance in the Ukraine. This time, the term “red line” was explicitly used. In an interview with CNN in February 2023, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said: “If there are any thoughts and efforts by the Chinese and others to provide lethal support to the Russians in their brutal attack against Ukraine... That would be a red line”.

The next day, Blinken said that Biden had warned China’s President Xi Jinping of: “Real consequences in our own relationship were China to provide lethal assistance to Russia in this aggression against Ukraine or in a systematic way aid in the evasion of sanctions”. And that warning was repeated by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in April, who spoke of “significant consequences”.

In May, it turned out that those consequences were corporate sanctions. The US added 20 Chinese companies to the trade blacklist because of their military support to Russia in Ukraine, such as through their provision of items used in the manufacturing of drones. Despite this, the Biden administration believes China has not crossed the red line. It says Chinese firms, not the state, have aided Russia militarily and that there has been no direct supply of weapons.


The Trump administration never used the term “red line” in reference to Iran. Instead, it described its policy toward Tehran as one of exerting “maximum pressure”. Under his tenure, Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal, imposed further sanctions on Tehran, and threatened Iranian targets with military action. None of it changed Iran’s behaviour in the Middle East. Eventually, an implied red line was seemingly crossed when Iran killed an American citizen in Iraq in 2019. Until then, Washington had continued to walk back on its threats to strike while Iran continued to behave provocatively.

In May 2019, the US accused the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of being directly responsible for an attack on four ships, including oil tankers, in the Gulf of Oman. Consequently, President Trump threatened Iran with a "bad problem”, adding that “They (Iranians) know what I mean by it”.

Nonetheless, the next month, Iran attacked two oil tankers. A week later, it downed a US drone that was flying over the Strait of Hormuz. Once again, the US military accused the IRGC of engaging in an “unprovoked attack”, while Trump tweeted that "Iran made a very big mistake!".

In September 2019, Iran launched a large-scale attack on Saudi oil plants owned by Aramco, temporarily halting almost half of Saudi oil output. Trump’s reaction went from tweeting that the US army was “locked and loaded” to merely imposing more economic sanctions on Iran under the pretext that sanctions would prevent Iran from being able to fund further attacks.

That vision never came to pass. In December 2019, Iran-backed Iraqi militia Kata'ib Hezbollah killed an American contractor in an attack on an airbase in Kirkuk. This led the US to retaliate by striking the militia in Iraq and later, in January 2020, assassinating IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani after Iran-backed militias attacked the US embassy in Baghdad.

Commenting on the assassination, Trump said: “If Americans anywhere are threatened... I am ready and prepared to take whatever action is necessary. And that, in particular, refers to Iran”. But he also qualified his statement: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war”.

Syria and beyond

But perhaps the most infamous broken red line in recent US history comes from President Barack Obama’s time in office. It came over the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad against his own citizens in Syria. In 2012, Obama implied that crossing that line would incur significant US punishment, and yet when chemical weapons were used in Syria in 2013, Obama walked back on his threat to attack Syria. The rest is history.

Read more: Obama’s hesitation in Syria: The red line that never was

Looking back at the past 12 years, the notion of a red line seems to have been reduced to mere rhetoric rather than being backed up with action. The use of the term has not deterred the US adversaries or its friends from pursuing their own geopolitical goals. And the US has not responded to attempts to stretch the red lines.

The US has also redrawn its own red lines. It has tended to avoid provoking escalation by sticking to them and is reluctant to take action that could lead to US forces being drawn into military quagmires.

So, instead of viewing America's red line as a firm warning of a likely response, it would be more realistic to see the term as one loaded with rhetoric to compensate for a reluctance to take action.

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