September 3, 2013

Syria: Deja Vu All Over Again

The country is caught up in a debate over how to react to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, a violation of an international ban on such weapons that dates back to 1925. The current crisis began when President Obama declared that the use of such banned chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would trigger a U.S. military response. The evidence of such attacks being incontrovertible, the President had to decide what to do in response.

When tasked to develop any sort of policy, especially one that involves military operations, the careful analyst will first look to see what was done in different times but under similar situations. The most cursory review of precedent would have stumbled upon the Iran-Iraq War fought throughout most of the 1980s. Midway during that war, Saddam Hussein deployed mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas against the Iranians. He did so with the full knowledge and silent acquiescence of a United States government determined to avoid an Iraqi defeat. In fact, the CIA provided Iraq with information about the deployment of Iranian troops, which shortly thereafter were subjected to nerve gas attacks.

This could not have been missed in the run-up to the current crisis, given that their use was common knowledge, as was our support for Iraq. The dots shouldn't have been all that hard to connect, especially since the intelligence community briefing the president would have been fully aware of what it did and did not do back then. Talk about the elephant in the room. I think it would have been better to take this head-on by stating the use of chemical weapons was wrong then and it is wrong now.

This is just one of many inexplicable aspects of our whole approach to the Syrian question. The indecision on which rebel groups to aid, the spectacle of being dragged across the red line by social media, the abrupt U-Turn on Congressional approval ... all this tells me that there is no great enthusiasm for a Syrian intervention.

But sometimes, history has a way of making itself heard in mysterious ways. We have just finished celebrating the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who speaks to the president as clearly as anyone living adviser. If President Obama has been reflecting on the life of Mr. King, he may have recalled such quotes as "The time is always right to do what’s right." Or perhaps this one: "I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good."

I have come to believe that at the root of this dilemma is a good man seeking to find a way through a very morally and politically difficult problem that no one else is particularly interested in solving. It's worth noting that back in the 1980s, Iran tried to drum up international outrage but had little success in rallying the world community to its side. The world turned a blind eye to Iraq's use of such weapons, just as the world is doing with Syria today.

And that is the ultimate elephant in the room ...  the cold, hard reality that President Obama confronts, which is that nobody really cares .. at least cares enough to seek retribution for the innocent victims of these illegal and immoral attacks.

International norms are only as good as the willingness of governments to enforce them, and, for reasons of realpolitik or ideology or memories of past mistakes, the vast majority of the world's governments are unwilling to go beyond protestations of outrage, not to mention the voices raised in opposition to any sort of military attack, some of whom make a compelling case. These same divisions will confront the president here in the United States once debate begins.

Being a good man in a bad world has never been easy. President Obama is finding out just how lonely a job that can be, even for the leader of the free world. But that having been said, we have all of us seen in our lifetimes instances where history has been bent to the will of a single individual. We may be in such a moment now. I hope so.

No comments:

Post a Comment