The Three Red Lines

Why Character Matters

The debates matter because winning the election matters.  Winning the election matters because policy matters. And the Red Lines matter the most. These lines should be, but are not always blatantly obvious.  Once they are recognized (or officially acknowledged), only three things matter: direction, timing and courage.  The latter is an attribute of character.




Jay B Gaskill


When Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN Thursday that war over Iran’s atomic bomb program could only be averted by announcing a Red Line, he was restating a lesson of history that the current administration has not yet adopted.


The point of the Red Line is to prevent war.  A credible threat of military action, clearly and unambiguously given by a nation that enjoys a proven capability to carry out the threat, a threat that is also a promise, made specific in terms and without ambiguity as to time, meets the minimum threshold of deterrence.  Nothing short of that works in the real world against a determined adversary. Indeed, in a world well infected with thuggish leaders, the credibility of the good governments erodes with time.  Once Iran acquires the atomic bomb, no threats will work.


Red Lines are those consequential bridge moments that, once crossed, all hell breaks loose. The Iran nuclear issue presents a particular type – the “I’m not bluffing” Red Line directed at a miscreant or other adversary, in which the failure to heed brings down real and terrible consequences.  The police officer’s shouted, “Put down that gun!” is another example.  We do the Red Line thing because we must, because the consequences for innocent people if we do don’t, is unacceptable.


The prospect of a nuclear armed jihad is sobering enough, but that is not the only red line problem that we face.  There are three.  The other two red line moments were self-inflicted.





The Iranian atomic bomb program – the irreversible tipping point ↓





The deficit/debt crisis – the irreversible tipping point ↓





The politicization of the economy – the irreversible tipping point ↓




Conservatives and liberals tend to have different approaches to the red line issues. Conservatives historically respect boundaries (which causes them to notice the red lines), and liberals challenge boundaries (which causes them to downplay the red lines).  …But not all the time… In an almost forgotten era, both conservatives and liberals came together to defend the red lines of the day (the vital boundaries that we must defend), against the brutal march of Nazism and against Soviet communism; and they came together to dissolve one of the worst of the gray lines (the toxic, arbitrary boundaries we must overcome) of the era, that of racial segregation.


What about today’s progressive liberals and that cohort of elected conservatives caught up in their current?  For decades the congressional GOP was complicit with the liberals and others in growing the national debt, and its leaders were unwilling to bring the Iran nuke problem to a head. For decades the creeping political interference with the economy was accepted as a given by almost everyone; and for all this time, neither side of the partisan aisle actually saw (or pretended no to see) the looming red lines for what they really were.


Among the small number of elected leaders who did notice, their warnings met denial, a mixture of “‘go-along-get-along”, ridicule and procrastination. The real courage to take on the red line problems in either party was as rare as Ross Perot showing up at a pot party in Berkeley.


Each of the three Red lines I’ve identified is urgently blinking on the incoming radar.  Each represents a threatening, catastrophic collision.  The first of them must be addressed within four months, the second within six months and the third within two years.


The issue of the moment is simple to state: Who among our leaders of the moment has the character – (a) to bluntly tell the truth, and (b) to actually lead us by drawing and enforcing the Red Lines before we are overcome?





When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the UN last week, he did a better job sounding and acting presidential than our own president has managed to do to date.[1] Netanyahu did this by simply telling the truth.  These were some of his remarks:


 “I ask, given this record of Iranian aggression without nuclear weapons, just imagine Iranian aggression with nuclear weapons, ‘Who among you would feel safe in the Middle East? Who would be safe in Europe? Who would be safe in America? Who would be safe anywhere?’


“Shockingly, some people have begun to peddle the absurd notion that a nuclear-armed Iran would actually stabilize the Middle East.

“Yeah, right… That’s like saying a nuclear-armed al-Qaida would usher in an era of universal peace. Ladies and Gentlemen, I’ve been speaking about the need to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons for over 15 years.”


 “At this late hour, there is only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs. That’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Red lines don’t lead to war; red lines prevent war.

“Look at NATO’s charter: it made clear that an attack on one member country would be considered an attack on all. NATO’s red line helped keep the peace in Europe for nearly half a century.

“President Kennedy set a red line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That red line also prevented war and helped preserve the peace for decades.

“In fact, it’s the failure to place red lines that has often invited aggression. If the Western powers had drawn clear red lines during the 1930s, I believe they would have stopped Nazi aggression and World War II might have been avoided. In 1990, if Saddam Hussein had been clearly told that his conquest of Kuwait would cross a red line, the first Gulf War might have been avoided.

“Clear red lines have also worked with Iran. Earlier this year, Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormouz. The United States drew a clear red line and Iran backed off. Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. But to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program: on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.”

None of this is controversial among long time members of the national security community. But Netanyahu’s measured remarks are considered shrill and insensitive among certain liberal apologists for militant Islam in general, and Iran in particular, men and women who seem to have our president’s ear at the moment.


I’ve been describing the growing danger for some time now, calling attention the as-yet-not-acknowledged likelihood that even a “modest” nuclear exchange in the Middle East (or anywhere else in the world for that matter) will disrupt world food supplies, leading to widespread famine.  Therefore, isolationism no longer is defensible on any level. [2]


The experts agree that attacking Iran will be a major undertaking, and many concede (especially if we are timid and surgical about taking out the threat) that the Iranian regime might get away with temporarily closing the Straits of Hormouz in retaliation, thus spiking oil prices for a time.[3]  But the real costs (both monetary and in terms of human suffering and death) will be far greater if that rogue regime ever gets control of nuclear weapons.[4]


If we are entitled to be uncertain about our president’s resolve (and we are), then the Iranian regime is also entitled to doubt that the US will actually do anything about their nuclear program until it’s too late.


When an American administration announces (as the previous administrations have) that the US will not “tolerate” the acquisition of such weapons by Iran, adding that “all options are on the table,” this was not laying down a bright, clear, red line. However, because of Bush I’s post 911 military actions, especially deposing Saddam in Iraq, such admonitions took on genuine force.  And in fact (when coupled with a projection of power) they prompted worry in Teheran and Pyongyang; and actually led Libya’s (now dead) Muammar Gaddafi to scrap his country’s nuclear program in 2003 without a shot being fired.


But the current administration has restored a sense of policy ambiguity bordering on ambivalence. This is the result of  softening the rhetoric, promising a less militaristic policy towards Islamic aspirations, bending over backwards to avoid provoking the jihadists. And the president has continued to cloud the water further with interviews like this one;


“…in Obama’s five-minute interview, meaningfully inserted in the pre-Super Bowl television coverage watched by hundreds of millions around the world, was his admission that he did not “see any evidence” that Iran had the “intentions or capabilities” to mount a terror attack on US soil, thus contradicting last week’s congressional testimony by James Clapper, head of US intelligence community, who accused Iran of engaging in such terror plots.”


As reported in the Asia Times 2/9/12.


Mr. Obama’s vague hints at possible action against the Iranian atomic bomb program are too weak, too vague and, frankly, he seems too insincere for the power of his administration’s proclamations, with or without economic sanctions, to avert war or to prevent a nuclear bomb equipped terrorist state from emerging in the Middle East.


The chattering classes are fluttering with discussions about all the possible negative consequences that might follow strong military action aimed at delaying the Iranian nuclear juggernaut, without a thought to the dire consequences of allowing that to happen.  Had these timid minds been in charge as we contemplated entering WW II on the side of Great Britain, our surviving English brothers and sisters would now be speaking German; most of our Jewish brothers and sisters would be dead; and any residual American conscience would have been so wounded by complicity with evil that all the gains of the civil rights struggle would remain a fantasy, never achieved.




There is a famous line that was spoken with great passion by former Alan Senator Simpson (R WY), of the Simpson Bowles Commission – the Obama deficit commission that the president sidelined in 2010-11. After looking at the mountainous sovereign debt numbers, Alan Simpson said, “You can’t cut spending your way out of this hole. You can’t grow your way out of this hole and you can’t tax your way out of this hole. So put that in your pipe and smoke it.


The Simpson Bowles Commission was the unacknowledged love child of this president, disowned and ignored.  But it lives on in the “gang of six” – six US Senators now form a group committed to working on the problem in order to build a senate majority around a solution.  They are Democrats – Mark Warner (Virginia); Dick Durbin (Illinois); Kent Conrad (North Dakota), and Republicans – Saxby Chambliss (Georgia), Mike Crapo (Idaho); Tom   Coburn (Oklahoma).

“Even with Congress at a nadir of bitter partisanship, the so-called Gang of Six, a bipartisan group of senators who came together last year to try to devise a way to strike $4 trillion out of federal spending in the coming decade, is still quietly at work. The group expects to have a debt-slashing plan of the $4 trillion variety ready well before the November election, in the event that spillover from Europe’s financial strains or changes in the Republican presidential race present an opportune moment to present it for consideration.”


CS Monitor –


As Jon Healey of the LA Times reminded us,


“The public has a famously low opinion of Congress, even though people tend to hold a less disparaging view of their own representatives. The last two years have been especially tough on the institution’s reputation, a response to the body’s relentless brinkmanship and paralyzing partisanship in the face of a slow economy.


“So it is with some trepidation that I throw out a little love for a handful of senators still seeking bipartisan agreement on a plan to bring the federal government back to fiscal responsibility. The core of this group is the so-called Gang of Six senators who have coalesced around the recommendations of Erskine Bowles, a Democrat who was chief of staff to President Clinton, and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), the co-chairmen of the White House’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.


“The conventional wisdom is that Congress won’t try to do anything meaningful about the federal budget gap or burgeoning debt until after the election. Then, lawmakers will have no choice but to act: Something on the order of $600 billion worth of tax increases and spending cuts are due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Simply canceling those hikes and cuts would cost more than $7.5 trillion over the coming decade, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. But letting them go into effect, the Congressional Budget Office warns, could trigger another recession.”


And, sadly, the President is not leading out on this: to the contrary. Read the Wall Street Journal account, September 11, 2012, “The True History of Simpson-Bowles” From the September 10, 2012, page A18 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, I’ve pulled these quotes:


Media elites … suggest that Simpson-Bowles would have succeeded if not for the all-powerful House Budget Chairman. This rewrites history, so allow us to remind readers what really happened to the Obama deficit commission.

Mr. Obama created the panel in February 2010, without a trace of irony, after he had raised federal spending to post-World War II highs. His political goal was to blunt attacks on his overspending, while also trying to lure Republicans into becoming tax collectors for his agenda in the name of a balanced budget. Mr. Simpson is the kind of Republican who had fallen for this in the past. So it was a pleasant surprise when Messrs. Simpson and Bowles instead endorsed a more efficient and competitive tax code. Their draft swapped fewer brackets and lower rates for fewer loopholes and “tax expenditures.”

The real reason the deficit is still so high is that Mr. Obama lacks … good-faith flexibility. It’s hard to remember now, but Washington was optimistic about Simpson-Bowles early in 2011 as a blueprint for compromise.


Simpson-Bowles did offer some useful ideas, especially on tax reform, helping to make that politically possible in 2013 if Mitt Romney wins in November.


What happens if, through timidity and lack of leadership, the country is allowed to slip over the fiscal Red Line?  Interest rates paid by the US to service its debt will become too costly to sustain. We are already paying more to service current federal borrowing than the combined budgets of homeland Security and the US Army.  The last available number is for debt service for the year 2011.  The sum for the gross interest paid was a staggering .454 trillion dollars. This is more than the budget for the US Army and Homeland security combined. And that is at comparatively low interest rates.


Debt repayment will consume much of ongoing budget while deficit spending continues, leaving a stark choice: economy-crippling tax increases or catastrophic hyperinflation or some combination of the two.


None of the choices that will face a President Romney or Obama is 2013 will easy, and few of the necessary actions will be politically marketable unless they are proposed in the context of truth-telling by a leader with character. Ross Perot has surfaced and, quite properly, he is asking for specific policy commitments from the candidates.


I have it on good authority that members of the gang of six have Candidate Romney ear, and that, if he is elected, he is prepared do to what is necessary to avert going over the fiscal cliff.  Will we hear about the details in the debates? I have no clue.






There is no meaningful democracy without a meaningful discussion among political players about the real issues and real alternatives.  And that will not happen unless and until there is a genuine likelihood that the electoral process  will be allowed to settle these disputes in either way.  There has never been a twenty years period in our history during which only the liberals or only the conservatives were consistently right on the big policy issues, except in the rare cases when a consensus was reached, as in national security during a time of threat.


There is far too little meaningful freedom in a country whenever there is a single, overarching authority over the entire commercial sector of the economy, especially one exercising an increasingly heavy hand over almost every economic decision, especially when this is done by unelected bureaucrats endowed with almost plenary day-to-day power.  Marx was partly right.  No, economics does not determine our every action (in this Marx was dead wrong), but the control of economics is the key to the control of political power.


We are terribly close to a system that is closed to all but the prevailing, accepted view. And there is little prospect of pulling back from a Tyranny Lite of this sort once a critical mass of political involvement in our daily lives is reached. If/when our political system arrives at such a saturation of the economic system that most of the electorate is actually dependent on political decision makers for their very livelihoods, we will have reached a constitutional end point. The protections of the constitution will have been breached from within, converting them to a hollow, impotent structure, honored without being actually followed.[5]  This will turn the typical election into a contest between petitioners for government favors.  It will set the stage for a semi-permanent rule by a grand alliance of political interest groups, a dependent media, and a “musical chair” elite of “benign” rulers, increasingly insulated from serious criticism or meaningful opposition.


I have written extensively about this from several angles, and I don’t want to repeat myself here.[6]


A fiscal collapse or a currency bubble collapse would be a very dangerous wakeup call, one that might cause a moment of sobriety or – more likely – awaken our worse demons.  Our constitution hangs by a slender thread.  Few students are able to understand, and fewer still able to deeply appreciate, what a  precious gift to us and to the future of creative civilization (if it survives) was the gift of limited government.  See and


The gift of limited government was also the gift of limited political interference in our daily lives.  If you have access to a memory bank for, say thirty adult years, you might ask – How far have we come to or away from that kind of freedom?


In a sane world, the next presidential election in the USA should not matter as much as it does.





Policy direction only gets you so far.

I am fully persuaded from all the evidence that Mr. Romney’s policy direction is coherent with the change of direction urgently needed to avoid disaster in each of the Red Line areas.  At least his aim is right.

Where will Obama go? Only the mystical faith of the now-disappointed moderates who initially supported Mr. Obama can sustain the fragile assumption that a second term Obama administration would finally get things right.  This is like saying that when a vessel on the sea had access to full power, its captain still chose the wrong course, but now, when the fuel is nearly spent, he will take on the difficult tasks and the right direction.

You should know that I am a democrat who grew up in a bipartisan, patriotic era when the current cohorts of progressives who now run the Democratic Party were marginalized outsiders.  Today the sensible patriots, like Joe Lieberman, have been marginalized to the point of extinction.

As a non-Mormon, I grew up among LDS boys, girls, men and women, many of who are lifelong friends.  Anyone in the business world who has dealt with Mormons knows that the stereotypical image that they tend to be almost faultlessly honest in their dealing is merely an accurate observation.

There is simply no contest on the character issue in the presidential race.  Mitt Romney is prudent, sober, honest-to-the-core, a man of his word, someone who would go a great deal out of his way to do the right thing.  I don’t need to descend into smear politics to make the observation that our incumbent president is less authentic and less reliable.

Mr. Obama may or may not come around on the three Red Lines.  If he does, he may or may not have the courage to do the right thing, assuming he is able to come to a decision in time.[7]

Vote as you will, for Hope and Change, 2.0, or for New Leadership and Hope for Change.

For my part, I just do not think Mr. Obama has earned the right to ask us to take another chance on him.




As published on The Policy Think site and the linked blogs, and by permission on other sites, this work is Copyright © 2012 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law.

As always, readers may quote with attribution, link or forward.  For everything else, please contact the author via email at < >.

[2] My recent pieces, – Nine Eleven 2012 and Nukistan and Islamageddon are posted at these links: and

[3] There is no shortage of doomsayers, but Colin Fenton, who heads commodities research at JP Morgan says that it is more likely that oil prices will remain fairly low.  See his analysis summarized in the Financial Times at this link.


[4] A fairly neutral assessment by a set of well-known experts, many like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, known doves, have reached agreement. “[A] nuclear-armed Iran would pose dangerous challenges to U.S. interests and security, as well as to the security of Israel. After reviewing many studies on this controversial question, we have come to believe that extended military strikes by the U.S. alone or in concert with Israel could destroy or severely damage the six most important known nuclear facilities in Iran, setting back Iran’s nuclear program for up to four years.” LINK –



[5] If you doubt this is a possibility, consider that our major federal regulatory agencies are endowed with the power to issue rules that have the force of criminal laws (a legislative function), to enforce them by filing charges (an executive function) and to adjudicate wrongdoing in administrative hearings without benefit of a jury (a judicial function), and to do all of this without congressional or presidential approval.  The EPA, for example, made C02 gas, something that every animal exhales, into a pollutant on the grounds that the Clean Air Act gave it that power. Under that Act, “The term ‘hazardous air pollutant’ means any air pollutant listed pursuant to subsection (b) of this section.” But the Congress did NOT list CO2 in that section. Instead, the “administrator” was allowed to make rules adding substances that present “a threat of adverse human health effects.” Don’t exhale!

[7] I have read the accounts that describe how conflicted and hesitant our president was when our intelligence services finally traced Bin Laden to his clandestine hiding place in Pakistan.  Some details may be in dispute, and others are deeply classified, but we can glean from leaked details that this was not an example of the Harry Truman style of decision making.

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