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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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Except, of course, no international disarmament scheme can possibly work in today’s Syria. There won’t be U.S. boots on the ground, so those chemical weapons stockpiles will, at best, be guarded by hapless peacekeepers​—​who can’t be relied on to risk their lives to protect those stockpiles. And we’ll depend on Assad to say where all the stockpiles are, with no reliable way to determine whether he’s cheating. If we do, nevertheless, commit to a disarmament scheme brokered by Russia, we’ll find it hard to bomb Assad’s military on the side or even give much help to rebels. American policy will be committed to an international scheme that depends on Assad’s cooperation.

The consequences won’t be limited to Syria, however. If we say a Russian arms control plan is adequate to control Assad’s chemical weapons, how will we mobilize support for a confrontation with Iran? Iran is already subject to inspections under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has, in fact, cooperated with inspections. Not fully, not adequately, and always with dodges and delays and legal wrangling about the findings of international inspectors. 

But having settled for unverifiable controls in Syria, Obama will find it much harder to persuade the world​—​or the American public​—​that it’s worth taking great risks to stop such dodges in Iran. And very much harder to persuade Iran that he’s not bluffing if he demands that they prove they have ended their drive to attain nuclear weapons.

As a practical matter, chemical weapons in Syria pose far less risk to the region or the world than nuclear weapons in Iranian hands. The former can kill hundreds, the latter hundreds of thousands, potentially millions. If Iran does get nuclear weapons, everyone in the region will calculate on the basis of that difference.

Striving to find some direct American stake in punishing Assad’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama argued in his televised speech that allowing one dictator to “get away with” using these weapons would encourage others to use them, and eventually they might be used against American troops. So we are staking the protection of American troops on an international norm. Perhaps President Obama hopes that Iran will be deterred from making nuclear threats by another international norm.

For now, at any rate, the administration has staked its chips on upholding international law by registering opposition to Assad’s chemical arsenal. Let us hope it proves another bluff. International norms are not much of a defense against the sectarian frenzies and murderous passions of today’s Middle East.

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at George Mason University.

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