Sep 8, 2013

Andrew Coyne: If Syria’s use of chemical weapons is not a reason to draw a line, then what is?

Sometimes it helps to boil an issue down to its essence. It is endlessly fascinating, for example, to discuss whether the Parti Québécois’s ban on the wearing of religious symbols in the public service has its roots in the laïcité of post-revolutionary France, but in the end it still amounts to a hiring bar on religious minorities.

So, on a much more serious level, to Syria. One reads the many, many elegant explanations of why the West cannot, must not, need not intervene in Syria — it would be hypocritical, in view of past failures; the distinction between chemical and conventional weapons is an arbitrary one; the credibility of the United States is not on the line (and anyway, credibility is overrated); it is not worth spilling blood in the service of abstractions like the Responsibility to Protect; the rebels are no better than the Assad regime; the UN Security Council has not approved military action; and that old favourite, what’s our end game? — and in none of them will you find a frank acknowledgment of what in fact they are arguing: that we should stand by and do nothing while tens of thousands of civilians are slaughtered; that we should do nothing, even when the means of slaughter escalates to chemical weapons.

There isn’t any way to put a fig leaf on this. There isn’t any “peace process” to which one might appeal for all sides to return. Nor is “arming the rebels” an alternative, unless it is proposed we arm them with chemical weapons, too (and anyway, it conflicts with the “rebels are just as bad” objection). A refusal to intervene at this point amounts, objectively, to ratifying the indiscriminate killing of civilians — not only in the past, or on a limited scale, but in the much worse massacres to come. At best, it is a policy of the rueful wringing of hands.

It would be interesting to know how absolute this position is. Much mockery has been made of U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line,” as if it were mere macho posturing. Very well: do his critics have a line? If 100,000 dead are not sufficient numbers to warrant military intervention, would a million be? If chemical weapons are not quite horrific enough, how about biological? Nuclear? If we are untroubled by the precedents being set this time, what about the next? Or the next? Or the one after that? Or does the doctrine of non-intervention apply in all cases, at least where neither we nor our allies are directly engaged?

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