Obama Is Right on Chemical Warfare in Syria
Obama is right not to rush to war, given our checkered past on the use of chemical weapons and the sinkhole of hatreds in Syria, writes Leslie H Gelb
Of course, we Americans think it’s horrible for any nation to use chemical weapons - except when we don’t. And of course, we want to punish any user of chemical weapons - except when we don’t. And of course, many now screaming against Syria’s likely use of chemical weapons against their rebels didn’t do much complaining when Iraq hurled these internationally banned gases against Iran and its own Kurdish people in the 1980s. And of course, American interventionists now demand U.S. military action against the Syrian government. But America’s history on chemical weapons is littered with mistakes and hypocrisy, and Syria itself is a bottomless pit of hatreds that can’t be “fixed” by more and more outside military force. And so, President Obama now correctly applies the brakes on further military action until the world knows for sure who did what, when and how with these horrible gasses, and until he figures out what the U.S. can do that won’t make the situation worse.
Yes, Mr. Obama was wrong to declare Syria’s use of poison gases to be a “red line” that required U.S. military action. Presidents should say such things only when they’re absolutely sure they will act accordingly. He wasn’t sure and still isn’t. But he’s right to count to ten now before he does something irretrievably stupid. We aren’t yet certain exactly what happened. We aren’t confident whether taking direct military action will bring the civil war to a speedier end or make it bloodier still. And we have no idea what we would do if initial U.S. military moves fail.
I should make clear at the outset that I’m flat opposed to the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. I’m also for responding strongly. But a country’s use of chemical weapons doesn’t give Washington license to do something stupid. If it made no sense for Washington to start arming the Syrian rebels before President Assad crossed the chemical-weapons line, U.S. arms for the rebels probably still isn’t justified today. Other preferable ways to respond - such as a cruise missile attack against Assad’s palace (in essence a warning shot) - wouldn’t commit Washington to further action without further cause.
How to respond is no easy matter, and Americans have a way of forgetting history’s instructions; others don’t. Here’s some unpleasant history.