Friday, June 21, 2013

Red Lines

President Obama announced last week that the Assad government has crossed his "red line" by using chemical weapons against rebel forces in the ongoing civil war in Syria and that we will now be deepening our involvement by supplying the rebels with arms.

This has a familiar, and disturbing, echo about it. As the Washington Post reports:
Despite months of laboratory testing and scrutiny by top U.S. scientists, the Obama administration’s case for arming Syria’s rebels rests on unverifiable claims that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people, according to diplomats and experts.

The United States, Britain and France have supplied the United Nations with a trove of evidence, including multiple blood, tissue and soil samples, that U.S. officials say proves that Syrian troops used the nerve agent sarin on the battlefield. But the nature of the physical evidence — as well as the secrecy over how it was collected and analyzed — has opened the administration to criticism by independent experts, who say there is no reliable way to assess its authenticity.

The technical data presented by the three Western powers is of limited value to U.N. inspectors trying to determine whether Syria’s combatants used chemical weapons during the country’s 25-month-old conflict. Under the United Nations’ terms of reference, only evidence personally collected by its inspectors can be used to fashion a final judgment.

But no inspectors have been allowed inside Syria, so Western governments have relied on physical evidence smuggled out of the country by rebels or intelligence operatives. Precisely who acquired the evidence and what methods were used to guard against tampering may be unknowable, according to experts experienced at investigating chemical weapons claims.
Does this not sound familiar? The Bush administration's justification for launching a military assault on Iraq was based on arguments, largely circumstantial, that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction, primarily chemical weapons, to be used against its enemies in the region. The left at the time, including Barack Obama, scoffed at the arguments and accused President Bush of having lied to justify his use of military force. We could go back even further to the event that triggered our entrance into the Vietnam war which proved so costly in American blood and treasure - the Gulf of Tonkin incident which historians now seem to agree President Johnson fabricated as a rationale for war.

The left was incensed by these flimsy pretexts. Mr. Obama was too young to have been concerned about Vietnam, but he was strenuously opposed to Mr. Bush's war in Iraq and was among those who scorned the argument that the White House had reliable intelligence which supported the conclusion that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical agents.

Now Mr. Obama himself has made the use of chemical agents a justification for military involvement and is claiming that Syria has transgressed his red line, but can offer no dispositive evidence of that transgression. Nevertheless, he's getting us involved in a conflict that can only turn out badly for us no matter who ultimately prevails.

Moreover, by supplying weapons to the rebels, if that's all we do, the most we can expect will be a stalemate between the contending forces with the killing going on into the indefinite future. Surely the Soviets and the Iranians will not allow the rebels to gain the upper hand, so simply supplying arms, without any other kind of intervention, will accomplish nothing other than to prolong the conflict. This may be the White House strategy, of course - to facilitate a long war between al Qaeda and Hezbollah and let them slaughter each other, but the toll on Syrian civilians will be enormous in such a scenario.

If something like this is indeed what comes to pass it'll be interesting to see whether we'll be hearing chants of "Obama lied, people died" from the left as we did, mutatis mutandis, during the Iraq war.

In any case, there's a more basic question to be raised about all this. Most Americans, polls show, agree with Mr. Obama that if Assad uses chemical weapons that should trigger American involvement, but why should it? What's the difference whether Syrian government forces kill tens of thousands of their people with artillery barrages and aerial bombings of towns and villages or whether they do it by launching a chemical agent into the town square? Why is one method of mass killing any more intolerable than another?

It's ironic that it was the left in the late 60s and early 70s which insisted that we had no business getting mired in a civil war in Vietnam, but today the most left-wing president in our history is about to get us involved in another civil war, on the same side as al Qaeda no less, that cannot turn out well.

It's also ironic that we have far better reason to take strong military action against Assad's chief supporter, Iran, but have so far shied away from doing so, despite the other red line that Mr. Obama drew when he said in 2008 that we will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. If it weren't for Iran, Assad wouldn't be able to survive, so if we want to help unseat Assad and at the same time stifle Iran's determination to bring about Armageddon perhaps Iran should be our target and not Assad.