Casting Stones


Saw another fella talking on the TV show

Trying to tell me how to live, and just how I should vote

He says he believes in the sanctity of life

A hundred thousand died, tell me are you sanctified

Now you without sin, pick up that stone

You without sin, pick up that stone

            —Hootie and the Blowfish, The Killing Stone


I will say this: at least he’s gone to Congress.

The Obama administration continues to press its case for Congressional authorization to launch some kind of strike against the Assad regime in Syria for its alleged use—now two weeks ago—of chemical weapons in the civil war there.  In an attempt to distance himself from the criticism that this is all about his saving face after painting himself into a corner by issuing his “red line” ultimatum last year, the President now swears up and down that this isn’t about his credibility, but about global credibility if the international community doesn’t enforce its own international norm:

“I didn’t set a red line.  The world set a red line.  The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war.  Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty.  Congress set a red line when it indicated that in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for.  And so, when I said, in a press conference, that my calculus about what’s happening in Syria would be altered by the use of chemical weapons, which the overwhelming consensus of humanity says is wrong, that wasn’t something I just kind of made up.  There was a reason for it.  That’s point number one.  Point number two, my credibility is not on the line.  The international community’s credibility is on the line.  And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.”

Oh, so this is all about standing up for international “norms” against this kind of behavior?  As an interesting aside, almost simultaneously with the President denying he had set any red lines himself, his Secretary of State was in front of the House Foreign Relations Committee attempting to deflect questions about why act now and not in response to earlier chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime in part by saying the earlier attacks happened before Obama drew “his red line” [RDW Note:  sorry, I don’t have a link for that, just happened to catch him saying that live]

I guess Secretary Kerry didn’t get the talking points memo.

I’m not sure what “international norm” the President thinks is enforceable in Syria.  If he’s referring to the Chemical Weapons Convention signed in 1992, and which the U.S. ratified in 1997, Syria has never signed that.  If he’s referring to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, while Syria has acceded to it, there is considerable debate whether it applies to internal civil conflicts.  Neither situation poses a clear international mandate for unilateral U.S. action, and query why it’s taken them two weeks to come up with this explanation.

The President’s effort to shift responsibility for the “red line” drawing onto Congress by citing the Syria Accountability Act is a nice try at establishing a domestic mandate, but misses the mark.  The SAA was passed in 2003, seven years before the Syrian civil war began, and thus obviously was not meant to deal with Syria’s conduct in that conflict.  Moreover, it had little to do with Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but was instead was almost entirely directed at Syria’s support for Hezbollah as an exporter of terrorism, and getting Syria out of Lebanon.  The chemical weapons concerns cited in the Act were tied to Syria’s development of ballistic missile delivery systems—that was the WMD threat to American interests: the idea that Syria was developing the capability to deliver those weapons over some significant distance (read: Israel).   Moreover, the SAA did not authorize or even mention the use of military force in Syria; it talks about import/export embargoes and diplomatic restrictions, not F/A-18s and cruise missiles.

The President wants to wrap himself in the cloak of universally-recognized “international norms,” but it’s very difficult to claim that moral high ground when the international community is universally against you on the subject of making a retaliatory strike.  The UN is against it.  Obviously our rivals are against it.  Even our allies—to the extent we have any left—are either against it, or not willing to participate.  It is a strange champion of “international norms” indeed who goes on a violent crusade with the support of almost literally no one on the planet.

We’re rightly horrified at the indiscriminant killing of civilians; war is an ugly, ugly business.  But if we’re honest with ourselves, our own history over the last half century leaves us little moral currency with which to insist upon donning the Lone Ranger’s white hat on that count.  Chemical weapons?  How about the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed by the U.S. military in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, more than a little ironically as part of us injecting ourselves into someone else’s civil war.  Our use of Agent Orange resulted in an estimated half-million killed or maimed, as many as a million with permanent health problems, and up to 500,000 children born with birth defects.  True, Agent Orange was intended as a defoliant to get rid of jungle hiding places, but it was a chemical nonetheless.  And dead is dead; does it really matter whether we killed them with a nerve agent, herbicide, high-explosive, bullet, or a pointed stick?

You want something more recent?  How about drone strikes?  Since 2004, U.S. drones have killed between 286 and 1500 civilians in Pakistan alone, and we’re not even at war with (or in) Pakistan.  Add to those the tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have a non-combatant body count over the last eight years that would rival anyone, and we’ve done it all in other peoples’ back yards.  How many civilians in other countries have the Russians killed in the last 8-10 years?  How many countries have they bombed?  How about the Chinese?  Hell, even the Iranians haven’t been doing that.

We can debate the national security necessity and unavoidability of these things; that’s not my point.  My point is if the issue is international outrage over the random and large-scale killing of innocents, however that is achieved, we don’t have clean hands.  Our presuming to lead the chorus of righteous indignation over Syria—particularly when there’s no choir backing us up—should raise more than an eyebrow or two.

Before we claim not only the right but the moral obligation to take unilateral violent action in another country to enforce an “international norm” on behalf of an international community that has neither asked us to do so nor supports us doing it, maybe—just maybe—we should consider the glass house in which we sleep. 

What goes around . . . 


1 thought on “Casting Stones

  1. Pingback: Chickenshit | Chasing Jefferson

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