On August 20, 2012, President Obama interrupted a routine White House press briefing with a surprise cameo appearance. Well in the midst of his re-election campaign, the prez likely figured he could benefit from some direct media facetime.
“Jay tells me that you guys have been missing me,” he joked dryly.
Much of what Obama said at the presser was partisan and forgettable; a denunciation of the infamous Todd Akin comments, an umpteenth call for Mitt Romney to release his tax returns. But then, right at the end, just before he walked off the dais, the President offered a few brief comments on the civil war in Syria.
“I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation,” he said, responding to a reporter’s question, “but the point you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical. That’s an issue that doesn’t just concern Syria, it concerns our close allies in the region, including Israel. It concerns us. We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people.”
“We have communicated in no uncertain terms to every player in the region,” he continued, “that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front, or the use of chemical weapons. That would change my calculations.”
At the time, it sounded like an empty threat. Perhaps just tough-talk posturing to improve the President’s national security bona fides with swing voters? Everyone knew even the world’s worst dictators never actually use chemical weapons any more; guys like Assad only keep the things around as an empty threat of their own, a “beware of dog” sign for a dog that doesn’t bite.
Well, never underestimate murderous psychopaths seems to be the lesson here. Last week reports began to slowly trickle in that the Syrian military had, in fact, used chemical weapons against rebel forces; specifically the nerve gas sarin in small battles near the cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Sarin causes severe muscle convulsions, loss of control over basic bodily functions, paralysis, respiratory failure, and a truly ghastly death. It’s the same chemical Saddam Hussein used to exterminate the Kurds, and the one that homicidal cult in Japan once went around pumping into subway cars.
His bluff having been called, Obama responded by equivocating. Though the use of sarin has been confirmed by the Israelis, British, and French — along with, according to Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Diane Feinstein, the United States “intelligence community,” on April 25 the White House released an exceedingly cautious letter offering only a nervous call for “a comprehensive United Nations investigation” to corroborate these war crimes.
This whole business — a mad dictator allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction, supposedly ambiguous foreign intelligence, UN inspections unlikely to do much beyond waste everyone’s time — obviously evoke strong memories of the lead up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the famous “dumb war” of 2003, to quote State Senator Obama. Since liberal critics seem to have been vindicated by history in their opposition to that conflict, it’s worth recalling the underlying conclusions that motivated their opposition. If we are to avoid intervening in Syria, after all, we’ll have to make peace with similar arguments.
● Evil is not unto itself a sufficient pretext for military intervention.
● The sovereignty of independent nations is an absolute right, and no nation deserves to have theirs infringed — regardless of how odious their government may be.
● America should avoid taking sides and shedding blood (ours and theirs) in a foreign country’s domestic conflict about which we know relatively little — and have even less at stake.
● We should avoid deposing stable Middle Eastern regimes and creating chaotic post-dictator power vacuums that could emerge as breeding grounds of Islamism. Especially in conflicts where a secular dictatorship is warring with a fundamentalist-dominated opposition.
All fair concerns, and in the Syrian context, the case for non-intervention is made even starker by the the fact that no one is pushing any grandiose, George W. Bush-style schemes about turning this once-dysfunctional country into a model democracy capable of inspiring the larger neighbourhood. America’s geopolitical curiosity in the whole mess has been exceedingly limited.
Yet that limited ambition also highlights the conflict’s uncomplicated short-term urgency for outside observers — preventing a massive loss of life at the hands of truly horrific means.
The United States could easily stop President Assad’s killings; of this there is no doubt. Syria is a third-world nation of 22 million people possessing an army of under 300,000 soldiers. There is absolutely nothing the Assad forces could do — chemical weapons or not — for which the Pentagon lacks a sophisticated and expensive method of countering.
Charity may not be a viable motive for a long-term Syrian strategy, but it seems a reasonable short-term one, as it did following the mere threat of a massacre in Libya. In that case, the Obama Administration offered the (widely disputed) figure of “100,000” as the possible number of Libyan lives that could be saved through intervention. Well, 60,000 to 70,000 Syrians have actually died in their conflict.
To quote another bit of rhetoric the President might wish to forget at the moment — his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize speech — Obama once declared that “force can be justified on humanitarian grounds,” particularly in “places that have been scarred by war.” This, he said, was the very definition of a “just war;” one that entails the exercise of force to uphold certain universal ideals regarding the inherent dignity and sacredness of human life — values championed by every religious creed and humanist philosophy — rather than mere naked self-interest.
“We honor those ideals,” the President added later, “by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”
And so it is now.