Why do we have this international consensus saying that while it's bad for someone like Assad to bomb a neighborhood full of civilians and kill all the men, women, and children therein, it's worse for him to kill that same number of civilians by means of poison gas than by means of "conventional" munitions that merely tear their bodies to pieces? Indeed, we act as though killing, say, a hundred people with poison gas is worse than killing a thousand or ten thousand people with conventional weapons. After all, the Obama administration (not to mention the rest of the world) reacted to Assad murdering 100,000 people by expressing its deep consternation and trying to figure out how to help without getting involved. But only now that he has apparently used some kind of lethal gas in an attack that accounted for less than one percent of all the civilians he has killed are we finally ready to unleash our own military.
Part of the reason is that we set up this international norm almost a century ago after World War I, and in the years since it's been solidified with formal treaties like the Chemical Weapons Convention and a general, unquestioned consensus that chemical weapons are particularly awful. Nobody's out there making the case that it's OK to use them, and when they are used, the people responsible always deny it. It doesn't much matter whether the norm is perfectly rational; it exists, and it affects the decisions states and individuals make.
But the White House isn't saying they're obligated by the Chemical Weapons Convention to act against Assad's government. They're presenting it as a moral imperative, a product of our collective horror at what Assad did. Perhaps that's true, and Obama is taking action now not because he genuinely thinks Assad's latest war crime is worse than those that came before it. But the real issue is that he made this "red line" threat, and now he has to follow through on it lest he lose credibility. Either the upcoming military action is a consequence of the chemical-weapon taboo. This isn't a repeat of Iraq, where "weapons of mass destruction" was a pretext to justify the invasion George W. Bush and his advisors so desperately wanted. It's pretty obvious that few in the administration are happy about this new campaign, but they feel they have little choice.
I'm a believer in taboos against violence and I'll take whatever I can get. In my mind the more of these taboos the better. But it gets a little bit dicey when the solution to enforcing a taboo against violence is ... a different kind of violence. It's a very difficult moral question. (And the dilemma is exacerbated by the moral hypocrisy of nations which violate their own taboos without any consequences.)
And as for the practical complications and basic questions of fact, well there are many. This discussion touches on a couple of them:
In the video above, from MSNBC on Monday, Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations urged a cautious approach to intervention in Syria. He said it was crucial not to act without certainty that Assad -- and not al Qaeda or rebel forces, which have also been accused of using chemical weapons -- was responsible for the attack.
Despite the ongoing investigation, there isn't clear proof that Assad is responsible for the attacks, though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was all but certain Monday that the Syrian government was responsible. In some of the strongest terms to come from the Obama administration thus far, Kerry accused Assad's regime of the "indiscriminate slaughter of civilians" and promised to hold the Syrian government accountable for a "moral obscenity."
Husain also sought to reframe the debate over the U.S. feeling obligated to lead the charge on any potential intervention, and questioned what the benefit of an intervention would be. "The Europeans have a responsibility to act here, the Arab nations do and Turkey does," he says. "The responsibility to act doesn't mean that it always has to be the U.S. I think we're encouraging a culture in the Middle East of dependency on the United States every time there's a conflict there and there are other global players that have a responsibility to burden some of that."
Husain, later in the show, questioned what a bombing would accomplish, and wondered why Assad would launch a chemical weapon attack in an area he already controlled. "Short of a U.S. invasion, short of U.S. troops on the ground, you're not going to separate fighting factions inside of Syria," he said. "Why would Assad want to use chemical weapons in the northeastern suburbs of Damascas -- Damascus that's under his control -- to kill only, forgive me for being so cold, about 1,000 people, whereas he's killed 5,000 people every month for 16 months without chemical weapons? So why now?"
I do not get the sense that most of the administration is anxious to move on this although Kerry's bellicose squalling yesterday had a not of febrile excitement that doesn't bode well. But I've got that feeling of deja vu all over again --- the train is rolling out of the station and picking up speed. I don't know what's going to stop it.