Hopefully, diplomacy will give President Obama an opportunity to back off further from that limb he went out on. In any case he may still ask Congress for some kind of contingent authority to launch air strikes against Syria. Circumstances could conceivably change, but I’m against giving him that authority. Air strikes offer very little probability of reducing death and suffering in Syria; they risk actually making things worse while escalating US involvement unpredictably in Syria’s civil war.
So, the case for air strikes has to be about more than Syria. It has to rest on two arguments: 1) The United States must enforce the red line against the use of chemical weapons; otherwise not only Assad but other murderous dictators would feel free to use them in the future; and 2) Failure to take vigorous action in Syria would impair US credibility, hampering this country’s ability to defend US interests in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. (Am I missing something here? Is there some other possible argument? Readers: please comment if you think so.) I’ll deal with the credibility issue in my next post. Today, I want to talk about the red line that President Obama says the international community has drawn against chemical weapons.
The red line is clearly faded, and not just because most of the international community invoked by the President doesn’t seem determined to enforce it. It’s faded also in part because, as the Syrian conflict has demonstrated, you don’t need chemical weapons to kill large numbers of people. The line has faded, too, because when it was drawn over 85 years ago, people’s ideas of chemical weapons were limited mainly to poisonous gases. In the decades since, the U.S and some of its allies have repeatedly used chemical-based weapons–like napalm and white phosphorous–which are hardly less awful than the familiar poisonous gases, but which aren’t generally classified as “chemical.” Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, recently remarked that he would much rather die from sarin gas than from napalm or white phosphorous. The red line the President cites conveniently absolves this country from the opprobrium justly heaped upon users of heinous weapons. It keeps our chemical weapons of choice on the “right” side of the line.
It’s also worth pointing to some other red lines. One, a good deal fresher than the one against chemical weapons, was drawn against the use of cluster bombs, whose dispersion of large numbers of tiny bomblets tends to produce large amounts of collateral damage (i.e., civilian casualties). Cluster bombs are widely viewed as abhorrent, and in 2008, 83 countries, including most of the U.S.’s major allies, ratified an international treaty against them. The United States has not only refused to sign the treaty, but has stoutly protested its right to use cluster bombs as we see fit. In our refusal, we are not in the best of company–other refuseniks include Russia, China, and, yes, Syria. Still another non-chemical weapon shunned by most countries–mainly because, like cluster bombs, it tends to keep killing civilians long after the fighting has stopped–is land mines. An anti-land mine treaty has been signed on to by most of the nations of the world but…not by the United States. Once again, we are in the company of Russia, China and Syria.
The United States in the past half century has engaged in more military actions by far than any other country in the world. Based on that record, it is quite possible if not likely that in the long run this country’s use of cluster bombs and land mines will be more consequential (i.e., deadly) than all speculative future chemical weapon usages by the world’s various despots. So, I can’t help but react with some cynicism to the Obama administration’s righteous outrage at Assad’s depredations. The moral high ground claimed by the administration is more like a morally rocky slope. The United States lacks credibility, and therefore legitimacy, as an international arbiter of morality with regard to weapons usage. But in proposing essentially unilateral American military action to enforce his red line, the president is effectively claiming the legitimacy that this country lacks.
Oh, I should also mention that the United States has now asked for two extensions of its 1997 commitment to decommission its own stockpile of sarin, V6, mustard gas and other chemical agents within 10 years. Now we say it will be done by 2021.
Immediately upon taking office, President Obama signed the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCWC). This commendable act followed 30 years of foot-dragging by the United States. The CCWC aims to place some restrictions on land mines and incendiary weapons like napalm and white phosphorus. I would like to hear the president now declare flatly that the US would never again use napalm or white phosphorus as weapons, and would at least sign (ratification would be impossible) the cluster bomb and land mine treaties. But, as John Kerry might say, he isn’t about to do it.