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Bombing for Morality

NEW YORK – A gift for words was always US President Barack Obama’s strongest asset. Now it looks as if his words have trapped him.

Having stated in March that the United States would “not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” and having spoken last year about a “red line” that could not be crossed, he will lose face if he fails to react forcefully to the murder, allegedly by the Syrian regime, of more than 1,000 civilians by sarin gas. Of course, the risk of losing face is not a good reason for attacking another country.

But why did Obama fence himself in with such rhetoric in the first place? Why this particular red line? Secretary of State John Kerry was right to call the use of gas “a moral obscenity.” But so is torturing children, which is how the civil war in Syria actually began more than two years ago. And is killing civilians with chemical agents morally more obscene than shelling, shooting, or starving them to death?

At least since the use of mustard gas in World War I, it has been a common assumption that certain weapons are more immoral than others. Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear bombs in particular, certainly cause more damage faster than conventional armaments do. But is there really a clear moral distinction between killing roughly 100,000 people in Hiroshima with one atom bomb and killing even more people in Tokyo in a single night of incendiary bombing? Was it more immoral to gas Jews than to machine-gun them into open pits?

There is an argument, made by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, that a swift punishment might persuade Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons and use “more banal ways to slaughter his people.” This does not make sense to me. The problem is surely the slaughter, not the methods used.

In any case, moral outrage, however justified, is not a sufficient reason for going to war. Mao Zedong was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million Chinese in the 1950’s and 1960’s. No one in his right mind suggested that military intervention in China would be a good idea. In the 1980’s, Saddam Hussein gassed hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Kurds. The US supported him.

So is it a legal issue? Using chemical weapons is indeed a breach of international conventions, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has never signed, and the Geneva Protocol, to which it is a party. So there are good reasons to treat Assad as a war criminal, in which case he should be indicted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) – established, incidentally, by a treaty that the US has never ratified. But bypassing the United Nations and unleashing an illegal war to punish an illegal act is not an easy policy to defend.

Still, one might say, surely the “international community,” or the West, or the US as the major Western power, must draw the line somewhere. How can responsible governments simply look away when innocent people are being killed in large numbers? Tolerating genocide is intolerable.

But where exactly do we draw that line? How many murders constitute genocide? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

Or is it not a question of numbers? Genocide, after all, is a matter of intent, of killing or persecuting people on the grounds of their race, ethnicity, or creed. Technically, killing ten people for such reasons – or even two – could be a form of genocide.

There is another way of considering the matter. The question to ponder before intervening with force in another country is whether doing so is likely to improve matters, save lives, and make the world more secure. Yes, violence against citizens, whether by sarin gas or helicopter gunships, is a moral obscenity. The issue is how to respond: What will work?

Justice and morality have little to do with this. Like the ICC, “humanitarian intervention” has more chance of working in the case of a weak country (say, Serbia, Mali, or Sierra Leone) than where a big power is involved. No one is going to shoot missiles into China or Russia for the sake of upholding human rights or international standards of warfare.

Syria, as many people have pointed out, is not Libya or Mali. Nor is it a great power. But its civil war has already spread beyond its borders, implicating greater powers like Iran, Turkey, and Russia in the process. One thing worse than the moral obscenities of a civil war would be a regional conflagration.

It is by no means certain that US intervention would do anything to reduce the risk of a wider war. In fact, certain advocates of US intervention – both neo-cons and “liberal hawks” – seem to desire the opposite outcome; they want a war against Iran. And there is probably a clear link in Obama’s mind between the red line in Syria and the one he has drawn for Iran, perhaps equally unwisely, to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

So what is to be achieved by a US strike on Syrian targets, which Obama has already assured the world is not meant to change the Syrian regime? It will not stop the civil war. But even one missile would turn the US into a direct participant, provoking yet more violence. Saving Obama’s honor hardly seems worth that risk.

This is the view of many people in Syria, even among the rebels. It is the view of most people in Europe. It is also the view of most people in the US. Perhaps it is even the view of Obama himself, which is why he is playing for time, desperately turning over approval of an attack on Syria to the US Congress. His relations with Congress have been far from smooth. But now he needs it more than ever – in order, as they say in America, to cover his ass.