The world is right to be outraged by the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The US administration is absolutely correct to assert that the Assad regime has crossed a ‘red line’. It’s just that their timing is a little off. These things can so easily happen with moral outrage. The Syrian government crossed a bloody ‘red line’ two years ago, when it began to kill its own citizens. The ‘west’ had its opportunity then to intervene and prevent a slow-motion carnage on a scale not seen since the even more dramatic genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when, quelle surprise, the ‘west’ chose not to get involved until hundreds of thousands had been slaughtered.
In four years of the Great War 100,000 people, mostly men, were killed by chemical weapons. This was out of a total of 17 million. In Syria hundreds have died from chemical warfare as against the thousands who have perished as a result of the use of conventional ordnance. So why do chemical weapons get such a bad press? Is it merely because death comes more slowly and painfully to the unfortunate victims of sarin or good old-fashioned mustard gas?
No one has yet satisfactorily explained why the use of nerve gas is more heinous than the multiple rape and murder of Muslim women in Bosnia, the fire bombing of Dresden or the use of nuclear weapons on a beaten Japan in WW2 – the latter primarily as a warning to the Soviet Union as to its future behaviour. Just this week the NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen became the latest in a long line of statesmen who have failed to validate the distinction. He volunteered the observation that, ‘there is a reason that chemical weapons are banned across the civilised world. They are horrific and barbaric arms that have no place in the twenty-first century.’ Obviously the depleted uranium shells used by some of his organisation’s members (eg,the US in Iraq in 1991, Serbia in 1999, Iraq in 2003 and Britain in Iraq in 2003) are perfectly acceptable. The unanswerable logic and intellectual subtlety of Rasmussen’s argument might well elude a family in Homs sheltering from murderous artillery fire. He is saying, in effect, that chemical weapons are more odious than conventional weapons because chemical weapons are more odious than conventional weapons.
But let us, for the moment, assume that the use of sarin, mustard gas, chlorine, phosgene, VX, (are we allowed to mention napalm, the carcinogenic chemical defoliant of choice in Vietnam? – best not) is indeed more reprehensible than lobbing hundreds of tons of artillery shells into populated areas. Is the Obama administration intent on punishing the Assad regime because he has crossed a moral Rubicon? It would appear not. Talking to CNN last week the American President was refreshingly forthright in his justification of military intervention. He was quoted by CNN as saying that, ‘when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.’ So, is that why the use of chemical weapons is a ‘red line’ issue? Not because it contravenes the Hague treaty of 1899 or the Geneva Protocol of 1925, but because it violates US national interests? If that is indeed the primary motivation of the Obama administration it would, at least, be consistent with US foreign policy since it became a global power in the early 20th century. The United States of America (and it is hardly unique in this respect) has generally intervened in foreign conflicts only when its own interests, vital or otherwise, have been threatened.
It may appear somewhat unseemly for the citizen of a country which has relentlessly, if peacefully, pursued its own self-interest at EEC, EC, and EU level since 1 January 1973, to appear to lecture the USA for ceaselessly advancing its own foreign policy interests since the Spanish American War of the late 19th century (the genocide of the Native American being a purely domestic issue). But what follows should not be seen as a lecture. It is more of a gentle reminder of decades of realpolitik and the exercise of overwhelming power, lest we mistake military intervention in Syria for anything other than, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz, ‘the continuation of self-interest by other means’.
Lets look at the recent history of crushing retaliation against chemical weapons use. When Saddam Hussein used mustard gas and nerve agents against Iranian troops in the Iran-Iraq war this, of course, sparked international outrage and a devastating military response? Similarly, the moral indignation of the civilized world was provoked into action when Saddam gassed his Kurdish opponents in Halabja in 1988? Russia was made to feel the wrath of the free world in 1989 when it used WW1 chemical weapons against Georgian protestors in Tblisi? On the previous occasions when the Assad forces unleashed chemical weapons, in a reduced dosage, Syria was punished by air strikes and targeted drone attacks? In a parallel universe perhaps, but not in the real world.
In fact in the former case the influential periodical Foreign Policy reported this week that CIA documents have revealed that the US acted as ‘spotter’ for Iraq in 1988, identifying Iranian troop locations, although fully aware that the Iraqi regime intended to use chemical weapons against their (mutual) enemy. But of course that was two years before the Iraqi dictator imprudently provoked western intervention when he invaded the oil-rich Kuwait and became, at last, persona non grata.
There is a phenomenon in behavioural economics known as the ‘say-do gap’. This is where people say one thing and then do something else. The ‘say-do gap’ does not just belong in the realm of economics, however. It has important applications in foreign policy as well. When it is accompanied by the crippling condition ‘tut tut syndrome’ it is a recipe for strategic inaction. The ‘say-do gap’ and ‘tut tut syndrome’ are only trumped in diplomatic and political circles when a combatant is unwise enough to threaten the economic or political priorities of the USA, Britain, France, or Russia, then the altruism of self-interest kicks in and it’s time for a moral crusade. (Except, of course, in the case of Russia which tends, brutally but refreshingly, to eschew moral indignation)
America’s first major international intervention – unrelated, that is, to the simple acquisition of territory – was its declaration of war on Germany in 1917. Partly for Anglo-centric cultural reasons, but mainly to secure a seat at the post-war negotiating table, President Woodrow Wilson defied the sentiments of a nation, and of a huge ‘hyphenated American’ (German, Irish, Scandinavian) cohort within his Democratic party, and went to war. That adventure cost 120,000 American lives but earned Wilson a seat at the Versailles peace conference. There he was eaten alive by Lloyd George and Clemenceau.
John Kerry has warned the American people this week that this is no time for ‘armchair isolationism’. President Wilson would have been glad of a few more couch potato ‘little Americans’ back in 1919 when he returned from the Treaty of Versailles with the League of Nations in his briefcase. Instead, however, of any convenient slothful lassitude, America rewarded the man who had kept it out of the war – before bringing it into the war after his re-election – by rejecting his lovingly constructed new world order. The USA decided that its national interest no longer included ‘entangling alliances’ or opposition to the subsequent European and African adventures of Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini. The abysmal record of the League of Nations in the 1935 Abyssinian crisis suggests they got it just about right.
America might have similarly retreated into splendid isolation after another Anglo-centric president, Franklin D.Roosevelt, took his people into a second global war in 1941. The ultimate provocation offered by Japan at Pearl Harbour could hardly have been ignored. But it was Germany who, unwisely, made the first move against America, declaring war on December 11, 1941. So much then for the notion that Roosevelt set aside American interests to give ‘plucky little England’ and the Jews of Europe a dig out.
But a cynic might suggest that once on a war footing which offered the prospect of wiping out a potentially dominant German economy the Americans may well have warmed to the theme.
That the USA did not return to its shell in 1945 had nothing to do with any philanthropic urge to keep the world safe for democracy (many of the regimes it allowed to flourish had only a passing acquaintance with the concept). For the next forty years American foreign policy, though feigning altruism, was actually based on a version of George Kennan’s 1947 notion of ‘containment’ of communism. Out of this policy came the Korean war, the interminable conflict in Vietnam and a variety of other proxy clashes – some collegial, others solitary adventures – where the USA and the other western powers merely had to convince themselves that their actions sprang from the loftiest of motives and their policies were for the greater good.
In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the self-destruction of communism, the genocide in Rwanda, Russian intervention in Chechnya, and Serbian ethnic cleansing in Bosnia were, by and large, allowed to play themselves out against a backdrop of western indifference and/or lethargic ineffectualism. The common thread between these vicious little civil wars was either that intervention would come at huge cost, or that no discernible western self-interest justified the effort involved.
Occasional outbursts of humanitarian scruples, such as the 1993 mission to Somalia and the NATO (American) intervention in Kossovo, were either dilatory, under-resourced, or simply dysfunctional. Such rare manifestations of humanity tend, however, be weighed down by the intrusions of the USA into the Dominican Republic in 1965 – in the aptly named Operation Power Pack – Grenada in 1983 (‘a flagrant violation of international law’ according to the UK, Canada and the UN General Assembly), and Panama in 1989 (despite the military codename Operation Just Cause). And let us not forget the entirely philanthropic British and French enterprise in Suez in 1956, where even the USA baulked.
In season three of NBC TVs The West Wing, which captured the fictional incumbency of President Josiah Bartlett – a presidency that never was but always will be – even the often-saintly Jed overcomes his scruples and orders the assassination of the defence minister of the equally fictional, but thoroughly believable, middle eastern state of Qumar. Bartlett, only the second Roman Catholic president of the USA, just as in the case of the first, John F.Kennedy, was always prepared to put American interests and security over any moral impulse or due process. Aaron Sorkin, the writer/producer of the award- winning series, got it just about right.
When western nations go to war it is always self-interest that is the motivating force. World powers don’t do moral crusades.