Waving a Red Flag Against Chemical Weapons

— by Steve Sheffey

We should be very skeptical about the use of military force in Syria, but we should not let our legitimate concerns blind us to what is actually being proposed, or to the consequences of inaction.

We are all tired of war. We are all concerned about the unforeseen consequences of military action. Our government lied to us about Vietnam. Our government lied to us about Iraq. Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. But is Syria Vietnam? Is Syria Iraq? Are we being lied to?

More after the jump.
We cannot afford to be gullible, but neither can we afford to assume that Syria is just like Vietnam or Iraq. We cannot necessarily accept at face value everything our government tells us, but neither should we assume that Obama, Kerry, Hagel, and Power, all known to be very skeptical about the use of force (didn’t our Republican friends oppose Hagel in part because of that?), are the same as Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, who were looking for any justification to invade Iraq, and didn’t let the absence of any justification stop them.

This is not about taking sides in Syria’s civil war — if it were, we would have used military force long ago. Many of the rebel groups are worse than Assad. This is about responding to the use of chemical weapons. The goal is not to topple Assad. The goal is to deter the use of weapons of mass destruction by anyone.

Why do we suddenly care about deaths in Syria, after so many have already been killed? Because chemical weapons cross an unacceptable threshold. As Steve Call explains:

Gas weapons cannot be aimed in order to spare children or other noncombatants. They cause fear and prolonged suffering in victims, and cripple some survivors. They can contaminate the environment with poisons that last beyond a war’s end.

The world failed to act when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. We cannot fail again. Our ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said on Friday:

In arguing for limited military action in the wake of this mass casualty chemical weapons atrocity, we are not arguing that Syrian lives are worth protecting only when they are threatened with poison gas. Rather, we are reaffirming what the world has already made plain in laying down its collective judgment on chemical weapons: There is something different about chemical warfare that raises the stakes for the United States and raises the stakes for the world.

There are many reasons that governments representing 98% of the world’s population — including all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council — agreed to ban chemical weapons.

These weapons kill in the most gruesome possible way. They kill indiscriminately — they are incapable of distinguishing between a child and a rebel. And they have the potential to kill massively.


The world failed to act when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. We cannot fail again. Poison gas attack in Halabja, 1988.

Power also explained on Friday that “For more than a year, we have pursued countless policy tools short of military force to try to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons. We have engaged the Syrians directly and, at our request, the Russians, the U.N., and the Iranians sent similar messages.”

We have bent over backward to find a non-military solution. We have made every effort to engage the U.N. and other international forums. Power detailed all we have done and concluded:

It is only after the United States pursued these non-military options without achieving the desired result of deterring chemical weapons use, that the President concluded that a limited military strike is the only way to prevent Assad from employing chemical weapons as if they are a conventional weapon of war.

If you have any doubts at all about the wisdom of military intervention in Syria, please read what Power said on Friday. She directly addresses many concerns we’ve heard from both the left and the right. This is not a pleasant decision, but the choice is clear. As Power said, “There is no risk-free door #2 that we can choose in this case.” But the risk of inaction far outweighs the risk of action.

Concern for Israel’s safety is not a reason to oppose intervention in Syria. In fact, Israel supports President Obama’s position. Outgoing Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said, “I’ve heard it suggested that a reason why the U.S. should not act in Syria is fear of retribution against Israel. In response, I say unequivocally that Israel can defend itself and will respond forcefully to any aggression by Syria.”

On Tuesday, Oren released an official statement, in which he said:

Israel agrees with President Obama that the use of chemical weapons is a ‘heinous act’ for which the Assad regime must be held accountable and for which there must be ‘international consequences.’ Israel further agrees with the President that the use of chemical weapons promotes the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and encourages ‘governments who would choose to build nuclear arms.’

Major pro-Israel organizations across the political spectrum also support the President’s position. (See separate article.)

Progressives especially should support Obama on this matter. Bob Creamer, who opposed the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, writes that “History will judge us harshly, if we stand by idly, and legitimate the use of chemical weapons — and weapons of mass destruction in general — by allowing their use in the view of the full world to go unpunished.”

Creamer continues:

Condemnation and “moral outrage” against the use of chemical weapons do not constitute a sanction. They are, in fact, no sanction at all. We would never allow the perpetrator of a rape or murder in the United States to be subjected to “moral outrage” and sent home to contemplate his deed. How much less can we allow that to the be case when a government has murdered 1,400 of its own people using weapons that have been universally condemned by the entire international community for almost 100 years. That defies common sense.

I would argue that the control — and ultimate elimination of weapons of mass destruction, chemical, biological and nuclear — is one of the most critical priorities for Progressives like myself, and for our entire society. To secure the future of our species, we must eliminate them, not only from the hands of tyrants like Assad, or unreliable nation states, or non-state actors but from all of the world’s arsenals, including our own.

The more we learn, the more clear it is that we should support military action against Syria for its use of chemical weapons. Please contact your elected representatives and urge them to support military intervention in Syria — it will take you less than two minutes.

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