The decision to use force, in political contexts, deserves to be held to the highest evidentiary standards. While it is certain that a chemical attack against Syrian civilians occurred on August 21, the authors of the attack have not been definitively (and independently) identified. That is a minor irrelevance, however, to the U.S. and its traditional allies (Britain and France), who reserve the right to threaten and posture in ways contrary to international law.
Beyond concern over chemical weapons (to which we return) or the desire to end the debilitating Syrian conflict, what is fundamentally at stake is “credibility” or the self-serving idea that projections of power need to be taken seriously by lesser entities who dare defy certain orders or systems. As with most decisions of state in using force, there is no overarching moral issue in this case, and given the noted lack of international and domestic support, “credibility” remains the underlying theme.
Therefore we can ask: what role, if any, did this chemical incident play in shaping official opinion? Truthfully, it cannot be of serious concern for the West (the U.S., in this case), which has employed (or allowed) such weapons to be used against civilians countless times. Two notable occurrences come to mind: the use of Agent Orange over Southeast Asia, or the more recent revelation that the Reagan administration (among its many crimes) winked to “our guy” Saddam Hussein to use chemical agents against Iran in the Iraq-Iran War, despite our full knowledge of Mr. Hussein’s intentions.
But these are minor footnotes for the perpetrators and their apologists; according to the New York Times, in the annals of chemical weapons usage U.S complicity has only merited wide criticism, and that Agent Orange, while surely bad, was “legally considered a defoliant, despite its impact on human health”—a fact sure to appeal to those affected, who can take comfort that their suffering was within satisfactory “defoliant” application. Clearly, the use of these weapons cannot shock the conscience—one would be hard-pressed to even find one in these corridors.
The quest for international legitimacy vis-à-vis Syria, is also based on faulty propositions. Though the West has cited the limitations of the UN Security Council (UNSC) as a wrench in their plans to take decisive action in Syria, it is no secret that the West has circumvented the UNSC in previous cases to further their own interests—choosing to do what it wants, regardless of outcry or consequence.
Remarks from the US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, display the tricky Janus-faced approach officials in these types of positions need to employ in order to sell their point effectively. On the one hand, Mrs. Power, who built a reputation faulting the West for failing to adequately respond to the crimes of others rather than responding to its own, is correct to say “Russia continues to hold the [Security] Council hostage” in blocking efforts to take action on the Syrian conflict.
On the other hand, a Russian diplomat could counter by stating “the U.S. continues to hold the Council hostage” in solving, for instance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is voted on every year by the UN General Assembly and has seen no less than 41 U.S. vetoes or abstentions of both GA and SC resolutions. As with most political rhetoric, we should dismiss without pause.
Moving away from these bothersome issues, we turn to precedent; the last few weeks have seen NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo resurrected as a model for an attack, which now appears to be on hold due to international efforts to craft a UN resolution to seize and dismantle Syria’s chemical stockpile.
Though parallels could be drawn, the chaos in Syria (and the belligerents involved) alone makes Kosovo look tepid by comparison. Kosovo had clear dichotomies: the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) vs. Serbian police and military forces, NATO vs. Yugoslavia, Russia vs. United States (diplomatically-speaking). The “opposition” in Syria, if it can be called that, constitutes dozens of groups ranging across the ideological/religious spectrum, and Syria is experiencing the type of crimes against humanity seen in Kosovo before a potential outside intervention (shockingly high amounts of refugees, for one); in Kosovo, the atrocities escalated following the NATO intervention.
Moreover, individuals directly involved in the 1999 campaign have downplayed the Syria-Kosovo connection. James Rubin (former State Department spokesman), following standard doctrine on Kosovo, notes the lack of a “moral duty” element re: Syria, assuming of course that Kosovo even had one. Interestingly, he says President Barack Obama “should stick to the issue of weapons of mass destruction, despite the inevitable echo of Iraq”—recalling here the 2003 war, not the aforementioned deployment of chemical weapons in the Iraq-Iran war, where our complicity is unworthy of attention.
Wesley Clark, the general at the helm of the NATO campaign, points out that “Kosovo was a much larger effort” in terms of the players involved in the intervention, compared to the total isolation now faced by the U.S. Clark, forgetting his own history, plainly states “You can't always control the script after you decide to launch a limited, measured attack,” though of course one can when there is high expectation, as Clark had in 1999, that a bombing campaign would facilitate an aggressive Serbian response, to which it did with all of its devastating consequences.
Should the Syrian regime be identified as the culprit of the chemical attack (a reasonable assumption at this juncture), a military response would still be throwing gas on an already chaotic fire. Though Bashar al-Assad has zero legitimacy to rule, a diplomatic solution still remains the “least bad” option in a sea of bad choices. An intervention would set another notch on the West’s long campaign of using such tactics to destabilize and punish countries around the world; it is this precedent that should be feared, resisted, and eventually dispelled.
Follow Chris on Twitter @WilsonFolk
Bashar al-Assad, Kosovo, Morality, R2P, Samantha Power, Syria, United Nations, US Foreign Policy