Does it matter if Assad used sarin?

Does the possibility (likelihood?) that Syrian government forces have used sarin gas strengthen the case for military intervention or at least great U.S. involvement?

Pro-intervention hawks like Sen. John McCain certainly think so and have been quick to remind everyone that President Obama called chemical weapons use a "red line." But McCain has been a vocal advocate of greater U.S. action for quite some time, which suggests that the use of chemical weapons hasn't really altered his thinking at all. Nonetheless, it is also worth noting that far more sensible commentators -- such as former CIA analyst Emile Nakhleh -- also view these reports as an additional reason to topple Assad sooner rather than later.

But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad's forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It's been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it's been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It's not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.  

The case against direct U.S. intervention never depended on believing that Assad was anything but a thug; rather, it rested first and foremost on the fear that intervention might make things worse rather than better. Specifically, it has rested on the interrelated concerns that 1) the fall of the Assad regime might unleash an anarchy of competing factions and warlords, 2) the opposition to Assad contained a number of extremist groups whose long-term agendas were worrisome, and 3) pouring more weapons into a society in the midst of a brutal civil war would create another Afghanistan, Iraq, or 1970s-era Lebanon. These prudential concerns still apply, irrespective of the weaponry Assad's forces have chosen to employ. And if his forces have used chemical weapons, then one might even argue that it raises the risks of intervention and thus strengthens the case against it.

This is not an open-and-shut issue, and there are obvious points to make on the other side. Obama did suggest that chemical weapons use might be a "red line," in what was a fairly transparent attempt to deter Assad from going down that road. So one might argue that Washington would incur some loss of credibility if it does not respond now. Although I think we routinely exaggerate concerns about our credibility, that doesn't mean that it is of no concern at all. Nonetheless, Obama's prior statements do not require any particular response, and the administration certainly shouldn't do something unwise simply because it feels it has to do something.  

One might also argue that chemical weapons are a form of WMD and that allowing Assad to get away with their use will undercut the existing taboo against these weapons. There's a case for that point of view, but I think it exaggerates the supposedly "unique" lethality of chemical weapons. Sarin is very bad stuff, but it is not like a nuclear weapon. Nor should we forget that governments can sometimes kill lots of people using rather simple weapons -- in the Rwandan genocide, they did it with machetes -- and the overwhelming number of deaths in Syria have occurred through conventional means.  

Like Senator McCain, I find my position on this issue unchanged by the revelations about possible chemical weapons use. I still see Syria as a tragically vexing policy question. It is heart-wrenching to see what is happening there and the instinct to "do something" is understandable, but the downsides to direct or indirect military involvement remain formidable. I certainly think we should be doing more to help refugees and to minimize the destabilizing effects of the carnage on Syria's neighbors. I am all in favor of continued diplomatic pressure on Russia and China to end their support for Assad, and the chemical weapons report may provide additional leverage on that point. (See here for some useful thoughts along those lines). But I hope that Obama doesn't allow himself to be bullied into doing a lot more simply because of these reports, unless he is convinced that doing more now reduce the risks later on.


Stephen M. Walt

China grades America's human rights conduct

One of the cool things about being as powerful and fortunate as the United States is that you get to preach to other countries about how they ought to behave. In that spirit, the U.S. State Department puts out a human rights report every year, and basically wags its finger at countries that don't measure up. Of course, the report tends to go easy on close allies, but it's still a useful document. Among other things, it provides data that scholars interested in human rights can use to test their ideas about the causes of violations and the policies that might alleviate them.

But as you might expect, the world isn't just sitting around and passively accepting report cards from Washington anymore. Case in point: China has just released its own human rights report on the United States, and it makes for rather interesting reading. It's hardly an objective assessment of life in America, of course, but much of the information contained within it is factually accurate. The incidence of gun violence and crime in the U.S. is far above the level of other industrial democracies, and having the world's highest incarceration rate is not exactly consistent with being the "Land of the Free." 

China's point is that the United States is being pretty hypocritical in singling out other countries, and maybe we ought to remove the log in our own eye before we start telling everyone else what to do. Add to this the recent bipartisan report confirming that Bush-era officials authorized the widespread use of torture and the fact that none of them has ever been indicted or prosecuted, and American hypocrisy on this score looks even more damning.

The Chinese report may not be objective, and the fact that U.S. leaders authorized torture does not mean Washington hasn't done plenty of morally admirable things too. But this gap between America's professed ideals and its actual behavior matters. Not just in moral terms, but in terms of power and global influence too. Smaller and weaker states are more likely to tolerate American primacy if they think the United States is a generally good society and led by individuals who are not just ruthlessly self-interested. They will be more willing to tolerate the asymmetry of power in America's favor if they think that power is used for the greater good. The more that others view the United States as hypocritical, self-absorbed, and indifferent to others, the more likely they are to ignore U.S. advice and to secretly welcome those moments when the U.S. gets taken down a peg or two.

The 9/11 attacks produced an unusual outpouring of sympathy for the United States ("nous sommes toutes Americains" headlined Le Monde), and we've seen a similar reaction in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings. But such expressions of solidarity tend to be fleeting and especially when  U.S. behavior gives opponents an easy way to heighten dissatisfaction with America's global role. What's going on here is a struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the wider world, and it would be foolish to believe that we will win that struggle just because we're the "good guys." That may be how we see ourselves, but Americans are only 5 percent of the world's population, and plenty of other people around the world have a rather different view.

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