I began my work in politics and the Progressive Movement working for civil rights and the end of the Viet Nam War in the 1960’s. And I worked hard to end one of the greatest foreign policy outrages of my lifetime – the War in Iraq.
I believe that U.S. military and covert actions to support the status quo in Central and South America, Africa and Asia were utterly indefensible.
But I also believe that there are times when the use of military force is not only justified – but required.
Since the end of World War I – almost a century ago – there has been a worldwide consensus that human society will not allow combatants in conflicts to use chemical or biological weapons. After World War II, nuclear weapons were added to the list.
Sometime in the last century, human society entered a gauntlet. As we pass through that gauntlet, a race is on to determine whether our values and political structures evolve fast enough to keep up with the geometric increases in our technology? If they do, technology could propel human beings into an awesome and unprecedented period of freedom, possibility and fulfillment. If not, we could destroy ourselves and turn into an evolutionary dead end – like our cousins the Neanderthals.
To survive that gauntlet, it is critically important that we do everything in our power to absolutely ban the use of weapons of mass destruction – and to make those who violate that ban into worldwide pariahs. We must make their use unthinkable.
In political and historic narratives – some moments take on an iconic, symbolic importance. Assad’s use of chemical weapons is now one of them. Will the world stand idly by while we watch – up close and personal – as a government uses chemical weapons with impunity? Or will someone take action to require that the perpetrators of this crime be made to pay a price?
Most people in the world wish that someone had stepped up to stop the horrific genocide in Rwanda. Most now believe President Clinton and NATO did the right thing to prevent ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.
History will judge us harshly, if we stand by idly, and legitimate the use of chemical weapons – and weapons of mass destruction in general – by allowing their use in the view of the full world to go unpunished.
And let’s be clear. We’re not debating who has the right to possess these weapons – or to possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction here -- a major topic of political debate in the world for the last decade. We are talking about their actual use.
If we agree that we cannot allow that actual use to occur with utter impunity, then the only question remaining is – who will act to impose a serious sanction?
So as a practical matter, if the United States does not lead some sort of international action to do so, it will not happen.
Of course the legacy of the War in Iraq casts a giant shadow on this showdown over chemical weapons in Syria. Its legacy casts doubt on the accuracy of American intelligence, and causes everyday Americans to be very reluctant to support any use of force in the world.
But this is not Iraq. The President is not asking for authorization to go to war – or to become engaged in the Syrian Civil War. He is not proposing – as Bush proposed in Iraq – an American military invasion. He is not proposing a campaign of “regime change” or “nation building.” America’s decision will surely have implications for the Syrian Civil War, but this decision is not even mainly about the Syrian Civil War. It is mainly about the use of chemical weapons.
The President is proposing that the Congress authorize him to take action in this very narrow circumstance. He is proposing that the world community demonstrate that if someone uses chemical weapons, there will be a substantial cost to that action – that we do not allow such an act to occur with impunity. Because if the world sits by, the message will be crystal clear: that the use of chemical weapons has once again become an acceptable means of armed conflict. That would be a tragedy – and would endanger the future of all of the world’s children – who could one day find themselves writhing in pain and gasping for breath like the Syrian children we all watched on television.
Condemnation and “moral outrage” against the use of chemical weapons do not constitute a sanction. They are, in fact, no sanction at all. We would never allow the perpetrator of a rape or murder in the United States to be subjected to “moral outrage” and sent home to contemplate his deed. How much less can we allow that to the be case when a government has murdered 1,400 of its own people using weapons that have been universally condemned by the entire international community for almost 100 years. That defies common sense.
I would argue that the control – and ultimate elimination of weapons of mass destruction – chemical, biological and nuclear – is one of the most critical priorities for Progressives like myself, and for our entire society. To secure the future of our species, we must eliminate them – not only from the hands of tyrants like Assad, or unreliable nation states, or non-state actors – but from all of the world’s arsenals, including our own.
We have begun to make progress down that long and difficult road with the end of the Cold War, the chemical weapons treaty, nuclear weapons treaties – and most importantly, the developing worldwide consensus that their use is unthinkable.
The world cannot afford an iconic use of chemical weapons to go unpunished. And the United States of America alone in the world has the ability to lead an appropriate international response.