President Obama wants to portray the use of chemical weapons by Syria's Assad regime as a moral issue. As John Kerry put it, "What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality." Not surprisingly, however, politics -- namely perceptions of power and the willingness to use it -- undergird this moralizing veneer. The president painted himself into a corner with an earlier claim that the use of chemical weapons was a "red line". The US administration and its allies are now more concerned with messages sent and received rather than the broader implications of a war against Syria. "If we don't strike now, the Assads of this world will feel free to act with impunity," goes the thinking. Given recent history, however, this is a shallow approach. Too many other follow-up questions are left open. How will the Syrian regime and its allies respond to a US strike? How can we be sure the US will not be drawn into a wider war? Will this embolden regional forces to pursue proxy wars with Syria as a battlefield? Most importantly, how will any such consequences affect Syrian civilians?
As one who spends much of his time thinking about how the US is perceived in the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, I can't help but think this administration is following in a well worn tradition of jumping to military solutions and of applying double standards where it concerns who is deserving of condemnation and violence and who isn't. These are lessons that Middle Eastern populations are all too aware of. To strike Syria in the current context will confirm (once again) that the US always acts unilaterally and preaches morality selectively and only in concert with its own wishes and priorities.
The Obama administration's moralizing tone rings hollow when the US has a worse record than any nation in the use of chemical and other "unconventional" weapons against civilians: Agent Orange in Vietnam and depleted uranium and white phosphorus in Iraq, not to mention the only use of nuclear weapons (on a primarily civilian population) in Japan. Secondly, when Saddam Hussein was a US ally he used chemical weapons against other Iraqis and against Iranians without so much as peep of protest from the US. Israel -- the US's closest ally in the region -- used white phosphorus against civilians in Lebanon and Gaza as recently as 2009 and no one in the US cried foul much less hurl condemnations or suggest punitive action.
The Syrian regime should not be allowed to abuse its citizenry as it does. In two years, more than 100,000 people have died as a result, first and foremost, of the actions of the Syrian regime. The opposition, especially its violent extremes, is not blameless but it did not start the assault on defenseless civilians with all the might of military state.
However, the US has more than military might at its disposal. For one, it could allow the UN and the Arab League to take their course (neither body advocates unilateral military action) and thus fortify an international response. How quickly we forget the lessons of the past. If it weren't for the George W. Bush administration's marginalization of the UN, the US might have not gotten away with an illegal and trumped-up invasion and occupation of Iraq. It was the invasion and occupation of Iraq, let's not forget, that led to the creation of al-Qaeda in Iraq and, now, the proliferation of al-Qaeda-styled militias in Syria. This is the sorry state of affairs that inevitably follows misadventures like the one the US is on the brink of repeating.
The trigger-happy cowboy mentality that has makes American leaders worry more about perceptions than consequences continues unabated from the Bush era to that of Obama. Unless Americans want to see this country headed in that direction again, causing more harm to themselves and our fellow civilians in the Middle East, we should oppose such unilateral actions as a military strike against Syria.
Steve Tamari is associate professor of Middle East history at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and writes the insidethemiddle blog at insidethemiddle.wordpress.com.