You may be left wondering whether to scratch your head, or merely retch and get it over with, once you read an interesting op-ed piece recently put out by left-leaning news outlet “The Week”.
David Linker makes a few cogent points therein, namely that President Obama blundered by declaring the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Assad regime to be a “red line” for some level of direct American intervention. The blunder is clear when you realize that it’s a political minefield for Mr. Obama to engage the U.S. military in yet another Middle Eastern conflict.
Simply put, if Mr. Obama didn’t want it, he shouldn’t have put a ring on it.
And now that Assad appears to have “called his bluff” (as Mr. Linker puts it), America is at the put-up-or-shut-up stage of international diplomacy. Hence the Administration’s urgent need to redefine exactly what standards should be observed in determining whether or not any chemical attack took place at all — the “denial phase”, if you will.
But Linker goes much too far in his attempt to provide the White House with a policy-ejection rationale:
“Chemical weapons are very bad, of course. But are they categorically worse than aerial bombardment of civilian targets using conventional weapons? Both, after all, produce piles of corpses and leave large numbers of victims maimed and disfigured. The end result in both cases is horrifying. Should one provoke a military response while the other does not? If Obama thinks so, he has yet to make the case.”
Oh, yes, of course, chemical weapons are VERY BAD. Hm, hrm, harrumph, indeed. For greater effect, imagine Mr. Linker pausing here to tap a meerschaum bubble-pipe against his palm in the most thoughtful manner possible. Of course.
I find it hard to believe Mr. Linker is unaware that, yes, the international community has always considered the use of WMDs to be categorically worse than conventional aerial bombardment, regardless of whether the targets are civilian or military. After the prolific use of chemical weapons in the First World War, the entire world entered a “mutually assured destruction” policy regarding any use thereafter, to such extent that not even the Nazis dropped chemical agents on Allied troops — saving those, instead, for its own citizens during the Holocaust.
To try and blur this well-defined line, at this extremely late date, is nothing short of the most partisan sort of politicking on Mr. Linker’s part. And make no mistake, it’s all about politics: Mr. Linker couches everything in terms of how “statesmanlike” it is for a nation to ignore basic human decency:
“The president’s duty is to us. He can have no duty to the citizens of another nation. That’s why the greatest acts of statesmanship will always be more self-interested than the highest acts of individual virtue.”
Those first two statements are correct, but the third? The only definition of a statesman which even touches on duty is when they are “regarded as a disinterested promoter of the public good” (italics mine). Every other definition pertains to how careerist, connected, or smooth they are as politicians. In order to create an excuse for Obama to reverse himself, Linker has to re-define what “statesmanship” actually is.
Let’s put that in a bit more perspective, though: was it statesmanlike for President Clinton to stay out of Rwanda during the Machete Genocides? You could argue that it was prudent (and many have), but what was statesmanlike about it? Similarly, was it statesmanlike for the United States to initially ignore evidence of the Holocaust — received as early as 1942 — or merely prudent?
In the current situation, one could argue that keeping our military out of Syria would be a prudent move, but this is of course undermined by the fact that Obama already drew a line in the sand over the use of chemical weapons. It is not prudent to make such a declaration to begin with, if you’re only bluffing. There are other ways to bluff on the international poker stage without throwing your chips away, as Obama did with his “red line” blunder.
Mr. Linker is quite correct to note that it was indeed a blunder to begin with. But to try and excuse the ongoing backpedaling and hair-splitting as “statesmanship” is nothing but partisanship hidden behind a poorly-painted mask.