Back at the end of May, when I last wrote about the mess in Syria, our options were bad and getting worse. Things have hardly improved since then. Even so, if Assad has used chemical weapons, then that fact should upend the American calculus. Whatever else might be the case, if the United States doesn’t respond to this breach in international norms, it will be a moral and strategic failure.
Why is this so important? To be blunt, tens of thousands have already died in Syria; in fact, hundreds of thousands die in other conflicts without drawing an international or American response. The moral argument for intervening to stop the killing of innocents is always strong, but the hard lesson of history is that it isn’t always easy or possible to do that. That has been the challenge of Syria for years now – is the use of chemical weapons really that different?
In a word: yes. The ban on the use of chemical weapons is among the most widely accepted principles of international law. Some, in an effort to avoid another American commitment in the region, have drawn attention to the inconsistency of the United States ignoring international protocol – in the form of the Security Council process – in order to uphold international protocol as it pertains to chemical weapons. But that’s silly. The rule against non-UN-endorsed military actions is observed, mostly, in the breach. The rule against the use of chemical weapons has been rock solid. Only a handful of times has a country violated this principle since it was adopted after the horrors of WWI.
If the international community hems and haws and does nothing, then the notion that using chemical weapons is illegitimate and unacceptable will be meaningless. So, by the way, will the notion that the United States is in a position to guarantee broad global norms. This isn’t the time to pretend that an ‘international’ response can mean anything other than an American initiative. As I’ve argued before, the time for building an international response capacity is between crises, not during them.
Of course, after the debacle stemming from WMD claims in Iraq, many Americans are understandably skeptical of administration claims now. But that skepticism is misplaced for two reasons. First, the context of these claims bares little resemblance to what happened in Iraq. Then, an administration clearly bent on war made assurances about intelligence that was available to no one else, and those claims bolstered their preferred policy outcome. Here, the administration is making claims that are supported by numerous independent sources, and those claims push a policy outcome that has been obviously resisted by the White House. In other words, claiming a regime possess WMDs when you want to attack them is qualitatively different than claiming a regime has used WMDs when you would clearly prefer not to get involved.
Others have pointed out that the United States still lacks a clear sense of what the objectives of a military action might be. In other words, we don’t have a strategic vision for the situation in Syria. Broadly speaking, I think that critique is accurate and that it represents a colossal failure on behalf of the Obama administration.
But the lack of strategy as it pertains to Syria shouldn’t obscure what are otherwise clear American interests and objectives, including the maintenance of international norms and the credibility of the United States as the final guarantor of Western liberalism.
For those reasons, even though I think Obama has failed to articulate an American strategy for the Middle East (frankly, because I think he lacks one), his framing of military action as a punitive measure is correct. I don’t know whether Assad will be deterred from using chemical weapons again if we strike. But I do know that the next regime to consider using chemical weapons against its own people will not be deterred if we do nothing.
I also can’t guarantee that a military attack won’t escalate into a larger conflict. If the US attacks Syria, the Assad regime might retaliate against Israel or against other American interests in the region. The unintended consequences could be a larger conflict or even a third American invasion of a Middle Eastern country. That would be a disaster.
However, escalation is always a risk in military action. If the United States now faces a scenario where Syria’s commitment to escalate outstrips our own willingness to do so, or our ability to avoid escalation, then the window has closed on an American age. And it would have done so on President Obama’s watch.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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