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Worse Than It Looks

A close reading of the red line.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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It now seems to be the general consensus that President Obama’s Syria policy is a contradictory mess. But that’s only how it appears on the surface. Probe a bit deeper and it’s very seriously deranged.

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The most obvious problem is symptomatic of the rest. Why draw a red line against the use of chemical weapons? For over two years, President Obama has kept aloof from the Syrian conflict. More than 100,000 people have died in the ensuing slaughter. But Obama insisted the United States must take action to confront the last 1 percent of those deaths​—​people killed by chemical weapons. Why draw the line there?

One can say death by chemical weapons is particularly gruesome. But gunfire and artillery don’t usually induce painless oblivion. Anyway, deaths from hacking machetes must be quite as agonizing as those from chemically induced seizures. That did not rouse the United States to intervene in Rwanda, when nearly a million civilians were killed that way. Nor to intervene in ongoing wars in central Africa, which have brought a more staggering death toll over the last 30 years.

Cynics assume the president simply got trapped by his impulsive comments about red lines a year ago, and that all policy lurches since then have simply aimed at preserving his own credibility. But I don’t think he chose that red line impulsively. Nor was he compelled by longstanding international understandings. Saddam Hussein used these weapons against Iranian soldiers and then Iraqi Kurds (including civilians) as recently as the 1980s. There was no serious international response at the time, no specific deterrent threat from the United States.

But human rights activists did start to mobilize then to suppress chemical weapons, seeing that as an achievable goal for humanitarian effort. And amidst the optimism of the post-Cold War era, they helped secure the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, banning even the possession of these weapons. I think the president’s red line is best understood as a commitment to stand by the priorities of international rights activists​—​such as his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power.

But that raises the next problem. If you want to be legalistic, Syria is not a signatory of that convention. The president brushed that aside on the grounds that 98 percent of the world’s people live under governments that have repudiated chemical weapons. Well, by that logic, various conventions not actually ratified by the United States​—​including mischievous human rights treaties, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and worrisome arms control agreements, like the convention against landmines​—​should still be binding on us because almost all other governments have endorsed them. Is that an approach to international law that can be embraced by the president of the United States?

We can stipulate that views about chemical weapons have evolved in recent times​—​say, since the Second World War, when we stockpiled a lot of them so that we might retaliate in kind if they were used against us. We can also stipulate that these weapons are now viewed as so abhorrent that we wouldn’t even think to use them in retaliation (as we promised we wouldn’t when we ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1998). That doesn’t mean we have the right​—​let alone the obligation​—​to impose punishing military strikes against any country that does use them, if they are not used on us or on our allies.

The view expressed by the president is a startling innovation in international law, at least as the law has developed since the 17th century, when European states renounced religious wars. Everyone sees the point in domestic affairs. If your neighbor breaks into your house, you can defend yourself with force. If your neighbor violates drug laws in his own house, you call the police. If you hear screams from next door but you know your neighbor is armed and police are far away, you had better be cautious and at least round up other neighbors to help.

The president’s view would make the U.S military the world’s policeman​—​literally. But a policeman acting with no courts to constrain it. The traditional view was that the absence of reliable international controls made it more important for powerful states to act with restraint. It certainly moved other states to distrust claims by great powers to be acting from disinterested, humanitarian motives.

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