So what’s the best explanation for why America invaded Iraq? Hubris born of success. From Panama to the Gulf War to Bosnia to Kosovo, America spent the decade preceding 9/11 intervening successfully overseas. As a result, elites in both parties lost the fear of war they felt after Vietnam. In 1988 Reagan had been so afraid of another Vietnam that he refused to send ground troops to Panama. In 1990 John McCain had responded to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait by declaring, “If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think [public] support will erode significantly … We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.” In his emotional 1991 speech opposing the Gulf War, John Kerry had mentioned Vietnam 10 times. In his 2002 speech supporting the invasion of Iraq, by contrast, he mentioned Vietnam only once.
It wasn’t only military success that by 9/11 had eroded America’s caution. It was economic and ideological success, too. By 2001 the boom of the late 1990s had turned America’s budget deficit to surplus. For top Bush officials, the lesson was that just as America had overcome the deficits Reagan amassed while fighting the Cold War, America could easily overcome whatever temporary debt the Bushies incurred fighting the “war on terror.” As Dick Cheney declared during the run-up to Iraq, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.”
The final ingredient was ideological success. In the 1980s, before democratization swept across Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, prominent liberals and conservatives would have found the idea that democracy could take root in a country like Iraq utterly fanciful. As late as 1983, Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, was writing that “the traditions—political, religious, cultural—that shape Latin American thinking and behavior are such as to make it exceedingly difficult for the countries of Southern America to proceed along the [democratic] lines followed by Northern America and Western Europe.” By 2001, however, “neoconservatism” had been redefined by ideological optimists like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Irving’s son, William, men shaped by the very democratic transformations that Irving Kristol had deemed impossible.
Obviously, it took 9/11 for the Bush administration to rally the public behind the Iraq war. But had the success of the 1990s not bred so much military, economic, and ideological overconfidence on both sides of the aisle, it’s unlikely they would have tried.
The key thing that has changed in the decade since America invaded Iraq is not Barack Obama’s election. It’s the collapse of American hubris. Far fewer people in either party now claim that America can easily topple and occupy distant lands. Far fewer believe we can conduct foreign policy as if “deficits don’t matter.” Far fewer believe that the peoples of the Middle East yearn for secular, liberal, pro-American democracies. That doesn’t mean the United States has stopped acting like a superpower. We’ve simply turned to methods that cost less money and fewer American lives.
It’s an old story. After Korea left the United States exhausted, Eisenhower told the CIA to overthrow leftist Third World governments because it could do so more cheaply than the Marines. When Richard Nixon could no longer sustain a large U.S. ground presence in Vietnam, he began bombing ferociously from the air. Now Obama has pulled U.S. ground troops from Iraq, is pulling them from Afghanistan, and is fighting al Qaeda with drones instead.
There’s nothing particularly glorious, or moral, about empire on the cheap. But at least war will no longer cost America so much money and so many young American lives. Maybe we’ve grown wiser over the last 10 years. Or maybe we’ve just lost the epic ambition that true tragedy requires.
Deep into this summer of global turmoil, with the United States once again seeking to steer the course of events in Iraq with precision-guided missiles, my thoughts have turned to the late historian Tony Judt. In a brief but brilliant essay written for The New Republic hours after the 9/11 attacks (not available online), Judt described gazing out his downtown-facing New York University office window that late summer morning to watch the 21st century begin.
The prevailing geopolitical dynamic of the coming century, he argued, would be disintegration.
And so it has been. Nearly 13 years later, the international order painstakingly constructed by the United States in the years following World War II has begun to crumble. That order survived and expanded its reach throughout the Cold War because both superpowers played by the traditional rules of international relations, despite the intensity of their ideological conflict. The U.S. and the Soviets were engaged in a national rivalry on an international scale, with nearly all the countries of the world compelled to join sides. And as the American side flourished, so, too, did the institutions it founded and funded throughout the West and in those regions of the developing world that joined the anti-Communist side of the Cold War.
It was partially inertia that led this order to persist and expand further for more than a decade following the collapse of the USSR. But by September 2001 (if not before), we had turned a corner into a new reality, one in which insurgent forces throughout the Middle East, northern Africa, and South Asia would attack key elements of the international order. Not laterally, as the Soviets once did and Vladimir Putin’s Russia is doing now in Ukraine, but from below, using the asymmetrical warfare of mass terrorism.
From al Qaeda to ISIS, these groups have had two main targets. One is America and its global leadership as expressed through international institutions (the U.N., IMF, World Bank, USAID, NGOs, etc.). Another is the nation-states created by the colonial powers after World War I, long ruled by autocrats and dictators who were sustained by those American-led international institutions.
The question is how the U.S. should respond to this challenge to the international order. To judge by our words and actions from 9/11 right down to President Obama’s latest statements and policies, we haven’t got a clue.
On one side are the neoconservatives. One might think that their identification with the Iraq War and the bloody, unpopular, nearly decade-long occupation that followed it would have discredited the neocons. But to judge by the influence they continue to exercise on Republicans and Democrats alike, it hasn’t.
There are at least two reasons. As military maximalists, the neocons are always able to respond to a failure by suggesting that things would have turned out better if only more force had been used. The problem, then, is never the policy itself but merely its insufficiently tough-minded execution. In this respect, neocon ideas are empirically unfalsifiable.
Then there’s the simplicity and coherence of the neocon reading of history — qualities that were on full display in Robert Kagan’s much-discussed cover story in The New Republic last May. The essay elegantly (and flatteringly) portrayed the U.S. as the singular guarantor of world order since the end of World War II. Without the ample use of American military might to impose and sustain that order, chaos would have reigned in the past — and will reign again in the future, if Barack Obama and his successor fail to fight it militarily. As events this summer have spun out of control from Kiev to Mosul, Kagan’s late-spring predictions have appeared to receive lightning-fast confirmation.
So is more active military engagement the answer? Can the United States use force to bring stability to Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and thereby prop up the crumbling international order?
Sure. All it would take is millions of troops and an occupation of indefinite duration. Think of George W. Bush’s Iraq surge times 10 — or 20.
Needless to say, America has neither the will nor the resources to attempt anything remotely like this. Especially because the occupied Muslim populations would be exceedingly unlikely to appreciate the humiliation of long-term occupation by a foreign, Western, Judeo-Christian power. Our very efforts to bring peace and order would fuel the very insurgency we’d be trying to combat. (This is of course precisely what happened in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.)
So what does a President do?
Unless we are willing to depose Maliki, reoccupy the country with hundreds of thousands of troops, impose order with overwhelming force, and accept the resulting casualties and blowback, the situation is exceedingly unlikely to improve in any serious way.
Short of that, we could of course focus on protecting Iraq’s Kurdish regions. But that might hasten the dissolution of the nation, leading to an increase in violence throughout the rest of the country. Renewed calls for outright Kurdish independence could also end up stirring unrest and violence in Kurdish areas just over the Turkish border.
One definition of tragedy is a situation in which there are no good options, in which every conceivable course of action — no less than the choice to do nothing at all — seems to make things worse or merely defer inevitable heartbreak and suffering.
Americans, incorrigibly optimistic, are famously averse to tragedy. Which means that we’re unlikely to respond well to the rapidly multiplying tragedies of our time.
But that doesn’t mean the tragedies can be waved away with bombs and good intentions.
So again tell me why invading Iraq and getting rid of an already isolated and neutered Saddam Hussein only to have him replaced by Al Qaeda 2.0 was a good idea? This is all related to the incredibly flawed foreign policy (if we can call it that) of the W. administration and as bizarre as it is, the fulfillment of Osama Bin Laden’s goal in attacking the World Trade Centre. According to CIA reports, he wanted to provoke a disproportionate response by the United States that would turn the Middle East against it militarily and domestically. It’s too soon to tell but in some weird way, this could be happening.
When confronted with the problem, Gulf leaders often justify allowing their Salafi constituents to fund Syrian extremist groups by pointing back to what they see as a failed U.S. policy in Syria and a loss of credibility after President Obama reneged on his pledge to strike Assad after the regime used chemical weapons.
That’s what Prince Bandar bin Sultan, head of Saudi intelligence since 2012 and former Saudi ambassador in Washington, reportedly told Secretary of State John Kerry when Kerry pressed him on Saudi financing of extremist groups earlier this year. Saudi Arabia has retaken a leadership role in past months guiding help to the Syrian armed rebels, displacing Qatar, which was seen as supporting some of the worst of the worst organizations on the ground.
For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably. The belief that Isis is interested only in ‘Muslim against Muslim’ struggles is another instance of wishful thinking: Isis has shown it will fight anybody who doesn’t adhere to its bigoted, puritanical and violent variant of Islam. Where Isis differs from al-Qaida is that it’s a well-run military organisation that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them.
Many in Baghdad hope the excesses of Isis – for example, blowing up mosques it deems shrines, like that of Younis (Jonah) in Mosul – will alienate the Sunnis. In the long term they may do just that, but opposing Isis is very dangerous and, for all its brutality, it has brought victory to a defeated and persecuted Sunni community. Even those Sunnis in Mosul who don’t like it are fearful of the return of a vengeful Shia-dominated Iraqi government. So far Baghdad’s response to its defeat has been to bomb Mosul and Tikrit randomly, leaving local people in no doubt about its indifference to their welfare or survival. The fear will not change even if Maliki is replaced by a more conciliatory prime minister. A Sunni in Mosul, writing just after a missile fired by government forces had exploded in the city, told me: ‘Maliki’s forces have already demolished the University of Tikrit. It has become havoc and rubble like all the city. If Maliki reaches us in Mosul he will kill its people or turn them into refugees. Pray for us.’ Such views are common, and make it less likely that Sunnis will rise up in opposition to Isis and its Caliphate. A new and terrifying state has been born.
CIA intelligence reports were very clear that Osama Bin Laden’s intent when attacking the World Trade Centre was to have the United States respond disproportionally in invading part of the Middle East (umm, Iraq) and have the radical elements of Islam rise up against the west. It may have taken longer than he envisioned but this looks a lot what the CIA feared happening.
Stranded on a barren mountaintop, thousands of minority Iraqis are faced with a bleak choice: descend and risk slaughter at the hands of the encircled Sunni extremists or sit tight and risk dying of thirst.
Humanitarian agencies said Tuesday that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians remain trapped on Mount Sinjar since being driven out of surrounding villages and the town of Sinjar two days earlier. But the mountain that had looked like a refuge is becoming a graveyard for their children.
Unable to dig deep into the rocky mountainside, displaced families said they have buried young and elderly victims of the harsh conditions in shallow graves, their bodies covered with stones. Iraqi government planes attempted to airdrop bottled water to the mountain on Monday night but reached few of those marooned.
Rising prices and stagnating wages may make hundreds more Russians think twice about the government’s price tag of between 800 billion and 1 trillion rubles ($23-30 billion) for Crimea, and may come to pose the first real threat to Putin.
The Russian leader for now looks unassailable, with popularity ratings running at over 80 percent and his critics reluctant to speak out against him for fear of being labelled a traitor against the popular cause of building a Greater Russia.
Russian markets have bounced back, recovering all their losses since the start of the year to trade slightly higher, and some bankers are encouraging their clients to dive back into a market they say is undervalued.
But Russia’s economy, riddled with corruption and nepotism, is still weak and, increasingly isolated by Western sanctions, is for now teetering on the edge of recession.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine, an influx of Ukrainian refugees and the threat of further sanctions all hang over an economy, which the International Monetary Fund sees growing by just 0.2 percent this year. Russia’s central bank hopes for 0.4 percent and the Economy Ministry 0.5 percent growth.
After weeks of saying visa bans and asset freezes imposed by the European Union and United States against a number of firms and officials close to Putin could not harm the economy, Russian leaders are increasingly testy over the damage wrought if not by the current sanctions, then by the threat of more.
“In fact, we are dealing with a new offensive type of weapon,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said of the U.S. sanctions in an interview with the Kommersant daily.
Investment has all but dried up, forcing the government to dip into reserves meant for pensions to finance projects, and the government says it will sell a stake in Russia’s state-controlled oil company, Rosneft, to cover some of the costs of developing Crimea.
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov had to backtrack after coming under fire for saying that all the funds accumulated in Russia’s personal pension plans in 2014 had been spent on “anti-crisis measures” and on Crimea.
The next day, he said Russians “would lose nothing”, but stopped short of saying whether the sum of $8 billion would be returned to the personal pension plans.
While such measures may take a while to hurt the population, Karen Vartapetov, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s rating agency, said a more immediate danger was the stagnation of real disposable incomes, which show only 0.2 percent real growth (adjusted for inflation) this year.
“Zero growth of real disposable incomes against continuing growth of public sector pay indicates that salaries in the private sector and non-salary incomes are shrinking,” he said.
“The economy outside the public sector has been stagnating.”
On top of this, the Finance Ministry’s efforts to try to meet Putin’s demands to increase public sector pay, including proposing a new regional sales tax, mean that prices could rise further, putting pressure on stretched salaries.
In the major cities such as the capital Moscow and Russia’s second city of St Petersburg – where Putin faced street protests in the winter of 2011-12 that at times drew tens of thousands – core inflation running at an annual rate of more than seven percent has had little impact on a population largely wealthy enough to cover higher prices.
An Obama administration program set up to reduce chronic hunger and poverty has contributed to rising incomes for farmers around the world and helped save millions of people from starvation, according to a report released Monday by the United States Agency for International Development.
The program, Feed the Future, was started by the agency four years ago after a rapid rise in global food prices. It has helped more than seven million small farmers increase crop production and has provided nutritional foods to 12.5 million children in countries hit hard by drought, war or poor development, the report said.
In addition, the United States government received more than $160 million in private sector investment in 2013 to help farmers and small businesses increase their food production, the agency said, a 40 percent increase from 2012.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, said the report provided the first comprehensive look at the program’s effectiveness.
“We have real numbers for the first time,” Dr. Shah said, adding that the new data showed that the administration’s efforts to end extreme poverty were having some success.
The administration has made food security one of its top foreign policy priorities and has pledged billions of dollars in aid for agricultural development to help countries sustainably grow enough food to feed their people.
Feed the Future works with American universities including Texas A&M and Kansas State, which have provided agriculture research and technical help. Private companies such as Cargill, DuPont and Walmart have provided new types of seeds, fertilizer and equipment to farmers.
Gregory R. Page, executive chairman of the board of the Minnesota-based Cargill, said it was essential that private companies be involved in the Feed the Future program.
“Governments and development groups have been at this for years and it hasn’t worked,” he said. “The only way that this is going to succeed is if we treat agriculture production as a business, not as aid. Feed the Future is the perfect example of this.”
The program operates in 19 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and has seen the greatest success in Senegal, Bangladesh and Honduras, the report found.
In Senegal, efforts financed by the United States helped the country reduce its dependence on food imports, particularly rice. The country’s rice imports fell more than 20 percent between 2008 and 2011.
Sudan was once home to a great civilization that was the most advanced in all of Africa—but centuries of colonialism and conflict, and a post-independence period ravaged by coups, dictatorships, and incompetent rule, mired Sudan in a series of never-ending wars. This timeline details how by 2013, the oil-rich, fertile nation was falling apart.
The Conservative government’s tough rhetoric over Russia’s actions in Ukraine may play well to some voters domestically, but analysts doubt it will have any impact on curtailing Moscow’s policies in the region.
“I think the only people Putin’s going to pay any attention to, if he pays any attention at all, are going to be the United States and the European Union, above all Germany,” said Randall Hansen, director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies.
“The United States, because it’s the global super power, and Germany because it’s a major importer of Russian gas, which on the one hand gives Putin leverage, and on the other hand, he’s also dependent on Germany.
“Canada doesn’t matter in this in the slightest. We can rant and yell and threaten. It will make no difference.”
He’s not alone
Piotr Dutkiewicz, a political science professor at Carleton and the former director of the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, said it’s relatively easy for the government to criticize because Canada doesn’t have extensive economic relations with Russia and there are no large Russian investments in Canada.
However, he notes that Canadian companies do have $3-billion worth of investment in Russia and the government should take that into consideration when speaking out.
“I think we should take a more balanced, I’m not saying uncritical, I’m saying more balanced position, taking into the equation Canadian interests in Russia,” Dutkiewicz said.
“If the Canadian government decides to be critical it should be critical, but at the same time we should watch what others are doing and how, by our criticisms, we’re really helping Ukraine.”
Dutkiewicz said that Canada is losing its reputation as a negotiator and instead is engaging in rhetoric stronger than that of the U.S., Germany or France.
“With their very heated rhetoric and no action we’re becoming a paper tiger in this process,” he said. “I really don’t like Canada to be seen as a paper tiger who is roaring without having any tools to implement its outrage.”
But the experts agreed that the government’s words have little to do with foreign policy.
“Harper and Baird, I think, are both principled democrats and have a principled commitment to liberal democracies such as Israel and a principled opposition to autocratic governments,” Hansen said. “But this is really about domestic politics. So they’re making a play to the Ukrainian community in Canada.
Although we have recently heard many fearsome statements from President Obama and the E.U. leaders, the actual sanctions (issued two and half weeks after the beginning of Crimea adventure) leave much to be desired. The “unprecedented measures” against Russia turned out to be relatively feeble prohibitions against several random and not very influential Russian officials—definitely not the primary decision-makers in the Crimea’s story. The real heroes of the occasion stayed (even symbolically) unpunished. Moreover, not only has Russia’s maintained its G8 membership, but, recently, G8 representatives have been distancing themselves from earlier statements regarding suspension of Russia’s membership. Loud talk and a small stick, indeed.
Moreover, the “acceptance” of Putin’s actions among the Western community appears to be on the rise. A Bloomberg View editorial, for example, announced that “the U.S. and EU aren’t going to fight to defend what remains of Ukraine. They aren’t bound by treaty to do so, and their interests (not to mention their electorates) argue against it.” (In fact, the U.S. has at least moral obligations to defend Ukraine under 1994 Budapest Memorandum.) Analyst John Walcott went as far as to suggest that “there is no question anymore, Ukraine (not Crimea, but Ukraine overall) is gone” on Bloomberg News this past weekend. Even the Baltics states that are often viewed as the fiercest opponents of Russia’s policies in Ukraine have shown some restraint. Yesterday, the Latvian minister of finance asked the E.U. to provide compensation to the European Union countries that will suffer economically from sanctioning Russia.
Altogether, this means that Putin is reading the situation correctly: The monopoly on violence rules the international order. There is simply no one to stop Putin from taking what he wants.
Ukraine’s initial losses are obvious: defeat in a land war, surrender of territories and populations, and the sacrifice to violence of thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of Ukrainians. Once the war is over, however, Ukraine would emerge more compact, more homogeneous, and more unified in purpose: Along with its eastern territories would go much of the electorate that routinely votes for the Communist Party and for former President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. As a result, anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western sentiments would decline. The new Ukraine’s government could confidently proceed with a radical political and economic reform program (a more solidary population would be more likely to accept the belt-tightening that reform entails) and pursue rapid integration into European and international structures. Unburdened of some of its most unprofitable rust-belt industrial sectors, Ukraine’s economy would be more open to foreign direct investment and could be poised for takeoff. Without Crimea and its southeastern provinces, Ukraine would be smaller, but it would survive and, in all likelihood, be much stronger.
Why are hawks so influential? The answer may lie deep in the human mind. People have dozens of decision-making biases, and almost all favor conflict rather than concession. A look at why the tough guys win more than they should.
Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.
In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses — only a few of which we discuss here — incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.
None of this means that hawks are always wrong. One need only recall the debates between British hawks and doves before World War II to remember that doves can easily find themselves on the wrong side of history. More generally, there are some strong arguments for deliberately instituting a hawkish bias. It is perfectly reasonable, for example, to demand far more than a 50-50 chance of being right before we accept the promises of a dangerous adversary. The biases that we have examined, however, operate over and beyond such rules of prudence and are not the product of thoughtful consideration. Our conclusion is not that hawkish advisors are necessarily wrong, only that they are likely to be more persuasive than they deserve to be.
Egypt hires American PR firm to improve its image, then arrests its film crew within hours of setting foot in Cairo
How do you maintain the image of a friendly, fatherly military stewarding the country toward democracy, one in which the generalissimo looks increasingly likely to run for president himself, while simultaneously continuing to tighten power on the streets and crack down on political opposition? How do you thread that needle?
It turns out to be really difficult, maybe too difficult. That contradiction, and ongoing inability of the military-dominated government to fully overcome it, was captured perfectly in an anecdote reported by Egypt-based journalist Max Rodenbeck. A long-time correspondent for the Economist who also wrote a wonderful book on the history of Cairo, Rodenbeck wrote recently on the government’s simultaneous efforts to cultivate popular support (backed by funding from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia) and to crack down on dissent. Those two missions collided, and spectacularly:
Significant sums of that generous Gulf aid have gone towards addressing this perceived image problem. Among several Washington public relations firms recently hired, one sent a film crew to Egypt to shoot some pretty footage of order and progress. Within hours of setting foot on the streets of Cairo, they were arrested.
There’s a certain dark comedy to the government cracking down on the very people it had hired to promote its image. But there’s a tragic element as well. In a way, isn’t every arrest of a journalist or intimidation of an opposition activist similarly self-defeating, if not as glaringly so? That was supposed to be one of the principal lessons of the February 2011 revolution that started all this. It was supposed to be a lesson of Morsi’s power-grabs and the fall from power it helped to enable. But it’s a cycle Egypt seems to keep returning to.
Of all the powers that have attempted to rule Egypt since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, and including Mubarak himself, none has succeeded in fully convincing the country of its benevolence, but neither has it been able to impose its will. But they’ve all tried to do both, and poorly.
Amazing piece of photojournalism from the New York Times about the standoff between the Philippines and China over the Spratly Islands. It’s worth reading as it is very probable that this could be the trigger of the world’s next major armed conflict.
John Kerry’s off-the-cuff remarks about Assad handing over his chemical weapons have triggered a potential resolution to the Syrian crisis. Kerry’s gaffe-from-the-gods led to furious diplomatic maneuvering that averted an immediate U.S. air strike against Syria.
There’s no question that Obama escaped a seemingly impossible situation. If Congress had rejected the use of force, what was Obama going to do? Press ahead with air strikes amidst congressional howls? Or back down meekly and suffer a diminished presidency?
The deal offers a face-saving way to claim some success. Assad hands over his chemical weapons stockpiles. The taboo against using chemical weapons is upheld.
Americans also avoided a dangerous military adventure. U.S. missile strikes would be big enough to embroil the United States in the Syrian civil war but too small to really make a difference on the battlefield–unless, of course, the U.S. campaign escalated into something much grander.
But Syrians, on the other hand, remain very much in the line of fire.
Removing chemical weapons from the Syrian battlefield will probably make little difference. The real weapons of mass destruction in Syria are conventional arms like artillery, guns, and mortars. Conventional weapons have killed 100,000 Syrians. Chemical weapons have killed 1,000.
Guns and bombs are no less barbaric than gas. High explosives even contain plenty of chemicals–it’s just these chemicals cause explosions that kill through laceration and trauma rather than through asphyxiation.
Even if Assad dutifully hands over his chemical weapons, it still leaves shelling, gunfire, and torture on the menu. Indeed, Assad’s willingness to give up his chemical stockpiles suggests they’re hardly essential to the regime’s strategic plans.
It’s like telling Al Capone he can’t murder people with a baseball bat–disappointing perhaps, but he does have other options.
Enforcing the chemical weapons taboo could have the perverse effect of encouraging brutality against Syrian civilians–so long as it happens in a conventional way. The more we fixate on chemical weapons as “bad” warfare, the more we make conventional weapons seem like “good” warfare.
After all, we enforce rules by punishing violators and by not punishing those who stay on the right side of the law. If Assad goes back to killing his people in the socially approved manner, it becomes tougher for the United States to act. How can you rally domestic and international support for intervention if Assad plays by our rules?
We’re too preoccupied by the means of killing rather than by the total number of civilian deaths and the overall strategic situation. Any decision to use sanctions or force should focus on Syria’s 99 percent: the vast majority of victims who were killed by conventional means.