Saturday, August 31, 2013

How is a bullet better than poison gas?

Imagine how you would react if China launched their version of cruise missiles at Israeli military targets because the Chinese Government did not approve of the way the Israelis had conducted a military operation in the West Bank.  You would probably be outraged, right?

Now tell me why the United States has any standing to launch a punitive attack against Syrian forces in the wake of their likely use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebel-held territory.  How has it come about that we have appointed ourselves in charge of punishing nations who do things the global community of nations disapproves of?

If the world is outraged by the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the world should do something about it—not just the United States.

And while I am ranting, how are chemical weapons different from more traditional ways of brutally killing your own citizens?  The Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad has killed between 20,000 and 40,000 rebel fighters.  The rebels have killed near 30,000 Syrian soldiers and police.  By all accounts, more than 100,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting. 

How are the deaths of those 100,000 children, men, and women any more acceptable than the deaths of the 1000 killed by a chemical agent last week?  This distinction between conventional weapons and chemical weapons is stupid.  Weapons are weapons and dying is dying. 

President Obama and those who support a limited strike on Syrian military capacity say they are sending a message that the use of chemical weapons crosses the line.  I would agree that a limited strike does send a message.  But I would also argue that supporters leave the second half of the message it sends unstated.

“The use of chemical weapons crosses a line—that the use of old-fashioned bullets, landmines, mortars, and shells does not cross, so you should feel free to rain those more traditional weapons down on civilians all you want.”  Is this really the message President Obama—and the rest of the world—wants to send?

I have no solution here.  In an ideal world, the UN would be unanimous in its condemnation of the Syrian regime and all of their actions against civilians.  It would also deplore any rebel actions aimed at civilians.  The UN has proven time and again to be a terribly flawed and mostly powerless institution when it comes to preventing violence.  

But this is far from an ideal world and bad actors have forever, (and probably will always), use whatever means at their disposal when they are feeling like they are out of options.  For the United States to have any credibility, we need to either stand up for innocents EVERY time governments use any weapons against them or we need to be much more cold-hearted and practical and respond only when our self-interest as a nation is at stake in a real and strategic way.  Our selective moral outrage drives me crazy and only serves to lessen our credibility around the world.

A weapon is a weapon, whether it be a suicide bomb strapped to the belly of a 12-year old girl, a drone-launched missile fired at a Land Rover in the desert around Marib in Yemen, a smallpox-infected blanket left as a gift for relocated Native Americans, or Sarin gas deployed against a town in Syria.  The people who die, die.  One way is not any more morally reprehensible than another to me.

I hope in the coming days President Obama will see the futility of any sort of military strike against the Syrian regime.  But I doubt it.