Friday, November 21, 2014

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.

  • Contact us to secure rights


  • Hide Comments Hide Comments Read Comments (7)

    Please login or register to post a comment

    1. CommentedZsolt Hermann

      The writer is raising a lot of valid questions about the motifs and the logic of bombing Assad's Syria with a "short, surgically precise" attack.
      The confusion, almost paralyzed helplessness of the international community is not surprising.
      Our previous/present methods, tools simply do not fit the conditions we evolved into any longer.
      Following previous/present logic there are two options, both futile.
      One is to do nothing or seemingly continue with the political mud wrestling, or to perform the planned limited attack, or even a large scale military invasion, running into the same unsolvable disaster the allied forces run into in Iraq and Afghanistan for example.
      And the US and the UK especially lost enough resources and credibility in recent years to become weary about making swift decisions to keep repeating the same futile mistakes.
      The bottom line is the following:
      we have evolved into a global, integral world, where there are no local, isolated problems any longer.
      Any conflict, crisis humanity is facing requires a mutual, global solution.
      We simply have to learn how to rise above inherent, historical differences, hatred, revenge and start communicating, planning and acting in a mutually responsible and complementing manner.
      It looks unrealistic, impossibly hard and we have no precedents since we never acted this way.
      On the other hand we have run out of ideas and our present paradigm does not work, moreover it has become self-destructive.
      We have to start adapting to the global, integral reality.

    2. CommentedJohn Rhodes

      The great risk of any intervention is making the situation worse. In this case, that ia a more-than-likely scenario, as the overthrow of the regime would leave a dangerous vacuum, necessitating another lasting international occupation and nation building process that could well descend into similar sectarian violence like unto that seen in the aftermath of the Iraqui invasion and occupation a decade ago. The Syrian people will not benefit from more violence, and neither will the American people.

      However, the defense contractors and extremists on all sides will benefit greatly, a fact that no one should dismiss while listening to the pro-intervention rhetoric!

    3. Commentedelham saeidinezhad

      Thanks Ian for this interesting article. I really enjoyed reading it. You are not playing with the words and being controversial. I think we are in a teaching moment in history and I learned from this article. There are lots of terrible things about this issue but the worst thing is that some totally has ignored public intelligence and think of people as a bunch of fool individuals.

    4. Commentedhari naidu

      Buruma's mind is as confused as The Pasha (Obama!) in WH.

      The Pasha and his NSA team (led by Rice) are not only amateur's in defining the morality of war and peace or military intervention in Syrian civil war.

      Recall the Red Line was (first) drawn by Bibi (Netanyahu) while giving his speech to UNGA.

      The Pasha is fighting not only AIPAC and its lobbying machine on The Hill, on behalf of Israel, to intervene militarily and remove Assad; NYT was forced to remove its mention of AIPAC in a dispatch today from an unofficial WH adviser...

      There is a lot of mist that's being spread right now about The Pasha's (political) motives for going to Congress for a vote, but the truth will eventually surface one way or another.

    5. Commentedm r

      Author's journalistic credentials would be more genuine, if instead of joining the disingenuous "RANT", that brandmarks Syrian President Assad as having broken tryst with his declared chemical weapons, meant quite rightly as a defence shield against Israeli designs, a description of "Red Lines", a new concept a la Prime minister Netanyahu be undertaken.
      As with "Human Rights" as a policy tool created during President Carter's time; "Red Lines" is its current variant meant to create trouble, or more precisely as a defence for unleashing trouble, at will.
      When a "Red Line" is created, it automatically encourages the interested parties to hover around it with a good hope to gain advantage; give an excuse for others to join the fray.
      It is just pure vulture-ism holding as MORALITY, making sure American Defence industrial complex has at least a war area current and preparation of next ones ready, perpetually.
      Rightly so, US is worried, it will collapse in its absence.

    6. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      The moral armature is wound around a weak reason, bringing War to the Peace process; the numbers that have died every time this intervention happened has been several times more than if the process would have been left to itself. Engineered solutions, with a weak connection to moral instincts, have more than the usual bout of gains and losses, where losses are mostly socialized, and gains are not.

    7. CommentedEric Jackson

      A careful reading of the 1925 Geneva Protocol shows that it is a reciprocal agreement among nations that adhere to its provisions, most notably not to use toxic gas weapons. A country that uses such a weapon first by definition does not adhere to its provisions and thus there is no reciprocal duty not to use such weapons. That the Syrian rebels are not a state party also takes the matter out of that framework. Pretty clearly the rebels had been using chlorine gas weapons in Syria. We can argue customary law, but it would appear that Assad has not violated the 1925 agreement, which is in effect a "first use" ban.