Are some atrocities worse than others? Or, is dead just dead?
This week, Syrian opposition forces claimed that the government of Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons against its own people, killing scores -- men, women and children -- in a Damascus suburb.
If true, The Times’ editorial board argued Friday, the United States can no longer just stand by and watch:
But if chemical weapons are now being used on a major scale against civilians, the U.S. must act — ideally in concert with other nations. On Thursday, France’s foreign minister suggested that the international community should respond with “force” short of the deployment of troops if the allegations are confirmed. A no-fly zone coupled with airstrikes is an obvious option.
To which I say: Why?
Here’s what the editorial board argues:
For almost a century there has been an international consensus that chemical weapons are beyond the pale because of their cruelty and potential for widespread loss of life. That understanding was reflected in Obama’s comments about a “red line.” The Syrian government must not be allowed to cross that line with impunity.
To which I say again: Why?
No, I’m not being callous. Like many Times readers, I was appalled by the front-page picture showing some of the children killed in the attack Wednesday.
Nor am I suggesting we should just ignore what’s happening in Syria. We have some diplomatic tools at our disposal. Let’s use them.
What I do question, though, is that “red line” drawn over the use of chemical weapons. Why is it worse for children to be killed by a chemical weapon than blown apart by an artillery shell? Is a child’s death palatable when it comes from a bullet but not from sarin? Bombs blowing up buildings, which fall on innocent civilians -- men, women, children -- that’s bad, but not cause for us to act? But a chemical weapons attack: That we can’t allow?
President Obama drew that red line last August. No doubt he hoped it would deter Assad from using chemical weapons, while allowing us to stay out of the fight. Except now chemical weapons have been used. We may not know yet what weapons, or even by which side. But something happened. So, it’s put-up-or-shut-up time, isn’t it?
That red line was a dodge. A dodge that has now come back to bite us. The simple truth is, most Americans have no appetite to get involved militarily in Syria. And rightfully so. Iraq and Afghanistan taught us about the limits of U.S. power in the Middle East.
So I’m sorry chemical weapons are being used to kill people in Syria. But there’s no more reason for us to get involved militarily there now than there was a week ago.
Dead is dead.