Punishing the few based on the unknown to defend the narrowest of principles
by David Atkins
Maybe intervention is the right course in Syria. Maybe it isn't. Maybe we should treat a chemical weapons attack that kills a few hundred as morally different from conventional weapons attacks that have been killing tens of thousands. Maybe we shouldn't. These are judgment calls.
But what's beyond question is that before anyone starts intervening in anything for any reason, it would good to know the facts. And right now, we just don't know what happened for certain:
U.S. officials say the intelligence linking the Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to the alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no "slam dunk."None of us mere mortals have access to the intelligence briefings the White House gets. But what has been leaked down from on high suggests that the attack was probably not sanctioned by Assad himself (after all, it would be a woefully ill-considered strategic move on his part) but by rogue elements allied to his regime. Current discussion of a bombing campaign seems to be targeted toward punishing those rogue elements in particular. If, in fact, that is what happened.
The officials say questions remain about who controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores, and there are doubts about whether Assad himself ordered such a strike.
President Barack Obama has declared unequivocally that the Syrian government is responsible and has been laying the groundwork for an expected U.S. military strike.
A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence builds a case that Assad's forces are most likely responsible but also points to gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture.
Intervention in this situation is somewhat perplexing. After watching tens of thousands of Syrians die in a brutal civil war, the United States seems determined to use bombs on a rogue faction of an oppressive regime based on murky intelligence in order not to alter the course of the civil war, but to defend the narrow principle that it's OK to kill people with bombs but not with poisonous gas. That doesn't sound like a great idea.
Either it's worth taking a side in the Syrian civil war, or it isn't. Either it's worth the blood and treasure to end the conflict and hold the war criminals to account, or it isn't. Bombing a country to prove a point about observing internationally sanctioned methods of killing seems unjustifiable. If the United States is less intent on saving lives in Syria than on proving to the United Nations how much we care about observing international war crimes law, we would do better to begin by delivering Dick Cheney to the Hague, instead.