The debate in Washington is about guilt management, not Syrian lives.
The very public handwringing and teeth-gnashing that is Barack Obama’s decision-making on intervention in Syria is on the surface and according to the protagonists about upholding international humanitarian norms, punishing regimes that transgress them and maintaining US credibility. To do some or all of the above, they argue, the Washington must punishing Syria’s president Bashar Assad and his government for having used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.
Much of this is strange (and strangely doesn’t appear to be strange for many people) because the ‘international community’ seems to be less concerned about dead Syrian civilians as long as they died from chemicals like gunpowder, TNT, RDX or PETN. However if the same dead Syrian civilians had died from other chemicals like Sarin, it is concerned that ‘norms’ have been violated.
Assad can kill. As long as he doesn't use chemical weapons to do so. This is called the "morality of the international community. "
— Nitin Pai (@acorn) September 11, 2013
No, this is not an argument to give the use of chemical weapons a pass—rather, it is to make the point that such distinctions neither address the humanitarian cause nor lead to clear thinking about what the international community ought to do when civilians are being subjected to mass atrocities.
Making the use of chemical weapons the “red line” is in effect a license to odious regimes to do just what they want with conventional weapons (note the loaded term ‘conventional’ weapons). If the proposed Russian-brokered compromise—where Syria will place its chemical weapons under international supervision—comes to fruition, the international community will be forced to be a wilful bystander as the Assad government and its opponents go about committing atrocities against civilians. The death toll is both a function of the type of weapons used and how long the conflict endures. As we found out in Rwanda, it is possible to kill millions of people in months using such simple mechanical weapons as machetes.
Yet the international community seems not to be interested in finding ways to end the conflict. How can we explain its preparation to use military force without even first making a serious attempt to engage Iran?
Washington’s old dogmas on Iran, war weariness from Iraq and Afghanistan, and new fashions on protecting international norms has clouded the Obama administration’s fundamental reading of the situation. In an shocking display of serpentoleum salesmanship or dangerous naïveté the US secretary of state claimed that military intervention in Syria does not mean going to war. What Washington had in mind was an “unbelievably small, limited” strike that would rap Mr Assad’s knuckles. He didn’t say—and no one bothered to ask—what after that? [See the previous post on why such claims are dubious.]
Mr Kerry’s boss had already passed the buck to the people’s representatives. His reluctance to use force is understandable, but he has to wrap his position in a label that would mean different things to different domestic constituencies. One thing he can’t say though is that what Western governments are concerned about is not upholding moral norms—for if it were so, then the chemical composition of Syrian ordinance wouldn’t have mattered. What they are really concerned about is upholding arbitrary norms of international guilt mitigation.
There’s a certain dishonesty to liberal internationalist claims of international humanitarian norms. The need to cover that dishonesty causes the rather shameful performances that we’re seeing in Washington.