All this apparently started some time ago.
Sometime around 168 B.C., in Rome — during a conflict which, ironically enough, involved Syria — Poillius, a Roman envoy, was dispatched to warn King Antiochus IV to abort his attack on Alexandria. The king wanted time. The envoy drew a line in the sand around him and told him he must decide before crossing that line. The king acceded.
How that line in the sand became a red line, the National Geographic account here is less certain about.
One possibility is the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War on October 24, 1854, when outnumbered Sutherland Highlanders were told by commander Sir Colin Campbell: “There is no retreat from here, men. You must die where you stand.” And so they stood, in their scarlet tunics, awaiting the charge of Russian cavalry.
“In his breathless account of the battle, London Times correspondent William Russell wrote that all that remained between the charging Russians and the British regiment’s base of operations was `a thin red streak tipped with steel,”’ the Geographic’s Roff Smith writes. Lord Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate of the U.K. at the time, commemorated all this in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
There’s nothing about that red line, or any line in the sand for that matter, in Tennyson’s take on the charge into “the jaws of death… The mouth of Hell.”
Tom Sawyer, fictionally of course, drew a line in the sand once, daring another boy to cross it.
Ben Yagoda, professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware, has traced the red line in more modern times to 1987, when an article in the New York Times reported that Muslim clerics in Iran had set “a red line for the revolution” that no one should cross.
Fast forward to President Barack Obama’s red line involving Syria.
At a White House news conference on Aug. 20, 2012, the president said this of the civil war underway in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria:
“I have indicated repeatedly that President al-Assad has lost legitimacy, that he needs to step down. So far, he hasn’t gotten the message, and instead has double downed in violence on his own people. The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into civil war he should move in the direction of a political transition. But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant…”
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president said a year ago last week. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
Yesterday, in Stockholm, Obama declared that the line is not his.
“First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” the president said at a press conference with his Swedish host en route to the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, where Obama would encounter Russian opposition to his plans for a military strike against Syria. “The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.”
“Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that — in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.”
And so the line is drawn again, not with horses but with missiles, awaiting the charge.