Sep 3rd 2013

Bombing for Morality

NEW YORK – A gift for words was always US President Barack Obama’s strongest asset. Now it looks as if his words have trapped him.

Having stated in March that the United States would “not tolerate the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people,” and having spoken last year about a “red line” that could not be crossed, he will lose face if he fails to react forcefully to the murder, allegedly by the Syrian regime, of more than 1,000 civilians by sarin gas. Of course, the risk of losing face is not a good reason for attacking another country. 

But why did Obama fence himself in with such rhetoric in the first place? Why this particular red line? Secretary of State John Kerry was right to call the use of gas “a moral obscenity.” But so is torturing children, which is how the civil war in Syria actually began more than two years ago. And is killing civilians with chemical agents morally more obscene than shelling, shooting, or starving them to death?

At least since the use of mustard gas in World War I, it has been a common assumption that certain weapons are more immoral than others. Weapons of mass destruction, nuclear bombs in particular, certainly cause more damage faster than conventional armaments do. But is there really a clear moral distinction between killing roughly 100,000 people in Hiroshima with one atom bomb and killing even more people in Tokyo in a single night of incendiary bombing? Was it more immoral to gas Jews than to machine-gun them into open pits? 

There is an argument, made by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, that a swift punishment might persuade Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to stop using chemical weapons and use “more banal ways to slaughter his people.” This does not make sense to me. The problem is surely the slaughter, not the methods used.

In any case, moral outrage, however justified, is not a sufficient reason for going to war. Mao Zedong was responsible for the deaths of more than 40 million Chinese in the 1950’s and 1960’s. No one in his right mind suggested that military intervention in China would be a good idea. In the 1980’s, Saddam Hussein gassed hundreds of thousands of Iranians and Kurds. The US supported him. 

So is it a legal issue? Using chemical weapons is indeed a breach of international conventions, including the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria has never signed, and the Geneva Protocol, to which it is a party. So there are good reasons to treat Assad as a war criminal, in which case he should be indicted at the International Criminal Court (ICC) – established, incidentally, by a treaty that the US has never ratified. But bypassing the United Nations and unleashing an illegal war to punish an illegal act is not an easy policy to defend.

Still, one might say, surely the “international community,” or the West, or the US as the major Western power, must draw the line somewhere. How can responsible governments simply look away when innocent people are being killed in large numbers? Tolerating genocide is intolerable. 

But where exactly do we draw that line? How many murders constitute genocide? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

Or is it not a question of numbers? Genocide, after all, is a matter of intent, of killing or persecuting people on the grounds of their race, ethnicity, or creed. Technically, killing ten people for such reasons – or even two – could be a form of genocide. 

There is another way of considering the matter. The question to ponder before intervening with force in another country is whether doing so is likely to improve matters, save lives, and make the world more secure. Yes, violence against citizens, whether by sarin gas or helicopter gunships, is a moral obscenity. The issue is how to respond: What will work?

Justice and morality have little to do with this. Like the ICC, “humanitarian intervention” has more chance of working in the case of a weak country (say, Serbia, Mali, or Sierra Leone) than where a big power is involved. No one is going to shoot missiles into China or Russia for the sake of upholding human rights or international standards of warfare.

Syria, as many people have pointed out, is not Libya or Mali. Nor is it a great power. But its civil war has already spread beyond its borders, implicating greater powers like Iran, Turkey, and Russia in the process. One thing worse than the moral obscenities of a civil war would be a regional conflagration. 

It is by no means certain that US intervention would do anything to reduce the risk of a wider war. In fact, certain advocates of US intervention – both neo-cons and “liberal hawks” – seem to desire the opposite outcome; they want a war against Iran. And there is probably a clear link in Obama’s mind between the red line in Syria and the one he has drawn for Iran, perhaps equally unwisely, to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

So what is to be achieved by a US strike on Syrian targets, which Obama has already assured the world is not meant to change the Syrian regime? It will not stop the civil war. But even one missile would turn the US into a direct participant, provoking yet more violence. Saving Obama’s honor hardly seems worth that risk. 

This is the view of many people in Syria, even among the rebels. It is the view of most people in Europe. It is also the view of most people in the US. Perhaps it is even the view of Obama himself, which is why he is playing for time, desperately turning over approval of an attack on Syria to the US Congress. His relations with Congress have been far from smooth. But now he needs it more than ever – in order, as they say in America, to cover his ass.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 11th 2019
Extract: "I noticed this dynamic firsthand a few years ago in Blagoveshchensk, on the Siberian border, just a half-mile from the Chinese town of Heihe. A century and a half ago, Blagoveshchensk was part of China. Then the Cossacks took control of it, along with many other territories in Chinese Outer Manchuria, on behalf of the Russian czar. Blagoveshchensk’s local history museum presents the development of the town after the Cossack takeover as a civilizing mission. The Russians, it seems, still view themselves as superior Westerners. As for Heihe, it got rich a quarter-century ago, after capitalizing on Russia’s post-Soviet disarray to sell cheap goods to then-starving Russians. Its own history museum presents the Cossacks as “hairy barbarians” (Lao Maozi) and lists the towns of Russia’s far east by their historical Chinese names: Blagoveshchensk is Hailanpao, Vladivostok is Haishenwai, and Sakhalin is Kuye. Local behavior reflects these perspectives. At the ferry port, the Russians sneer at the Chinese traders who bring Russian vodka and chocolate to Heihe, while the Chinese move past the Russians as if they do not exist."
Jun 5th 2019
Extract: "....the Constitution, which established the impeachment process as a check on the president’s behavior between elections, says nothing about using it only when politically convenient. Moreover, given the results in 2018, Democratic Party leaders might well discourage making the disposition of the president the key issue in the next election. Most important, a decision not to initiate an impeachment process against Trump could set a terrible precedent. If Trump isn’t impeached for his numerous criminal acts and abuses of power, would impeachment remain a viable check on the presidency? "
Jun 3rd 2019
Extracts: "Sooner or later, all smaller powers dependent on global markets would have to choose a side, unless they are somehow strong enough to withstand both American and Chinese pressure. With China and the US both demanding clarity, even economic giants like the European Union, India, and Japan would be faced with an intractable economic dilemma."
May 24th 2019
Waging a war against Iran, or even thinking of doing so, is sheer madness. Trump has thus far wisely rejected the warmonger National Security Advisor John Bolton’s outrageous advice. Waging another war in the Mideast, this time against Iran, would have not only disastrous consequences for the US but will also engulf our allies from which they would suffer incalculable human losses and destruction. Bolton was the architect behind the devastating war in Iraq in 2003, which inflicted more than 5,000 US casualties and a cost exceeding two trillion dollars, allowed Iran to entrench itself in Iraq, and gave way to the rise of ISIS.
May 24th 2019
The private Tasnim news agency reports from Iran that in a speech to thousands of university students, Iran’s clerical leader Ali Khamenei made an unusual and extraordinary criticism of president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over their handling of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or deal on limiting Iran’s nuclear enrichment program.
May 21st 2019
Extract: "Brexit, after all, is as much a Kremlin project as it is anyone else’s. Putin wants to divide Europeans, and in the UK, Brexit has succeeded in dividing Britons like nothing since the Corn Law debates almost 200 years ago. Putin wants the EU to fragment, and Brexit is causing the biggest crack yet in the bloc’s history. Putin wants to sow doubt about the legitimacy of traditional news sources; pro-Brexit media consistently promote lies as truth and inveigh against reputable papers like the Financial Times as elitist enemies of the people."
May 16th 2019
Iraq’s population when invaded was 26 million. Iran’s population today is 81 million..........Whereas Iraq’s neighbors– Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular– had been mauled by Saddam and so did not strongly oppose Bush’s invasion, Shiite Iraqis, many Syrians, the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and the some 40 million Shiites of Pakistan would support Iran.
May 15th 2019
It’s time that economists, pundits, and politicians start looking holistically at life in our times, and take seriously the long-term structural changes needed to address the multiple crises of health care, despair, inequality, and stress in the US and many other countries. US citizens, in particular, should reflect on the fact that many other countries’ people are happier and less worried, and are living longer. In general, those other countries’ governments are not cutting taxes for the rich and slashing services for the rest. They are attending to the common good, instead of catering to the rich while pointing to illusory economic statistics that hide as much as they reveal.
May 8th 2019
"........Meanwhile, Trump is leaving the door open for Russia to come to his aid again in 2020. The White House and congressional Republican leaders have been blocking a bill to secure US elections against foreign attacks. And administration officials have been instructed not to raise the issue of Russian interference with the president, lest it cast a shadow on his legitimacy.  The next phase in this affair is already coming into focus. Barr, with the help of Trump’s golfing buddy Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is now enlisted in peddling the president’s fantasy that the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt” orchestrated by “deep-state” supporters of Hillary Clinton. Once again, current and former FBI agents will be targeted, either because they expressed criticism of Trump or because they opened a national security investigation into a hostile power’s meddling in the US presidential election (which continued in the 2018 midterms). FBI director Christopher Wray, commenting on the Mueller report, said that the Russians are “upping their game” for 2020. "
May 7th 2019
We are witnessing the loss of biodiversity at rates never before seen in human history. Nearly a million species face extinction if we do not fundamentally change our relationship with the natural world, according to the world’s largest assessment of biodiversity.
May 4th 2019
Accusing Iran of being a rogue country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, supporting extremist groups and terrorism, persistently threatening Israel, and destabilizing the region in its relentless effort to become the dominant power may well all be justified. The question is, what would it take to stop Iran from its destabilizing activities and help make it a constructive member of the international community, and avoid military confrontation with either the US or Israel or both?
Apr 29th 2019
Some of the most famous scientific discoveries happened by accident. From Teflon and the microwave oven to penicillin, scientists trying to solve a problem sometimes find unexpected things. This is exactly how we created phosphorene nanoribbons – a material made from one of the universe’s basic building blocks, but that has the potential to revolutionise a wide range of technologies.
Apr 28th 2019
Easter visitors to London have found some streets and buildings occupied by “Extinction Rebellion” activists, warning of climate catastrophe and rejecting “a failed capitalist system.” Followers of central bank thinking have seen the governors of the Bank of England and Banque de France warning that climate-related risks threaten company profits and financial stability. Both interventions highlight the severity of the climate challenge that the world faces. But warnings alone won’t fix the problem unless governments set ambitious but realistic targets to eliminate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions, backed by policies to ensure the targets are achieved. Zero net CO2 emissions by 2050 at the latest should be the legally defined objective in all developed economies.
Apr 25th 2019
LONDON – Russian efforts to influence European elections have received plenty of media attention. But the same cannot be said of interference by conservative Christian groups based in the United States, some with links to President Donald Trump’s administration and his former adviser, Stephen Bannon.
Apr 24th 2019
.............the version of the report released is only the start of wide-ranging and intensive House investigations.
Apr 17th 2019
On the night of April 15, 2019, in Paris, the emotions were raw. “Notre Dame is burning, the whole of France is crying, the whole world is crying,” said Archbishop Michel Aupetit of Paris. “It’s terrible, frightening, painful, a tragedy, a nightmare.” “This place leaves no one untouched. When you enter this cathedral, it inhabits you,” said Anne Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, in front of the burning monument. “We will rebuild,” said the Rector of Notre Dame, “we will rebuild.”
Apr 15th 2019
High-level political purges are gathering pace in Russia. The latest evidence came in late March, with the arrests of Mikhail Abyzov, a former minister for open government affairs, and – two days later – Viktor Ishayev, a former Far East minister and ex-governor of Russia’s Khabarovsk region. Unsurprisingly, the arrests of such senior figures is having a chilling effect among the country’s elites. The authorities have now arrested or imprisoned three former federal government ministers and a supporting cast of regional officials
Apr 8th 2019
The reaction to this type of paternalism, sensible and well-meant as it usually was, came in the form of petulant populism. Like a child who refuses to eat his spinach, just because his mother claims it is good for him, supporters of Trump, Brexiteers, or Baudet want to give the finger to the politics of virtue. That is why Nigel Farage, the chief promoter of Brexit, likes to be photographed with a glass full of beer and a smoldering cigarette: if the virtuous elite want us to drink less and quit smoking, let’s have another and light up.
Apr 8th 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be on a roll. He has sent a rocket to the dark side of the moon, built artificial islands on contested reefs in the South China Sea, and recently enticed Italy to break ranks with its European partners and sign on to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump’s unilateralist posture has reduced America’s soft power and influence. China’s economic performance over the past four decades has been truly impressive. It is now the main trading partner for more than a hundred countries compared to about half that number for the United States. Its economic growth has slowed, but its official 6% annual rate is more than twice the American rate. Conventional wisdom projects that China’s economy will surpass that of the US in size in the coming decade. Perhaps. But it is also possible that Xi has feet of clay.