the Case for Responding to the Use of WMDs

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The first sentence of the White House report sums the report: “The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21 2013[1].” The report goes on to demonstrate why the intelligence community assumes the agent used to be sarin neurotoxin. “High confidence” is strongest degree of certainty short of empirical confirmation. This report is a compilation of myriad sources from human intelligence (HUMINT), signal intelligence (SIGINT), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), geospatial intelligence (overhead imaging), and the body of open source reporting (including witnesses and victims), and had input from all 16 agencies making up the “Intelligence Community.” Test results from the United Nations inspection team will be released in a week or two, and as such, weren’t included in this report[2].

Twelve neighborhoods, arching from south of Damascus around to the east were affected. Multiple streams of intel report a rocket and artillery attack on the suburbs (all of which are held by rebel forces, or in serious contention) in the early hours of August 21. Overhead sensors corroborate that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods that, approximately 90 minutes later, showed effects of a sarin incident[3]. No such rocket launches or artillery fire were detected as coming from rebel-held areas. Best estimates at the time of writing the report indicate that ~1,429 were killed, including 426 children[4]. The attack began with simultaneous strikes in the Kafr, Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya and Mu’addamiyah neighborhoods, carried out with the coordinated use of rocket and artillery fire. Opposition forces have never shown the ability to mount such a widespread, coordinated attack[5]. The report mentions multiple previous chemical attacks – all much smaller in magnitude – over the past year, all on rebel-held neighborhoods and strongholds[6].

The report then goes on to document the attack itself, using many on-site videos, journalists, and first-hand accounts as sources for this description, and asserts that rebel forces do not possess the capability to fake such widespread reports, photos, videos and journalist accounts[7]. In the fluidity of combat operations and press suppression, this is as close to “solid” proof that you’re going to get, and I’m sure the classified version only strengthens the case. This is the atmosphere within which leaders act. They never have a slam-dunk “Guilty” case from which to decide.

Chemical weapons are grouped with other area-effect weapons that kill indiscriminately due to their large lethal footprint. Chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are all considered to be Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and are specifically banned by multiple treaties, agreements and organizations. They are universally prohibited. OK, now what?

If we do not respond, Assad (or any other despot) can gather that he may use WMD with impunity (as long he stays in power – I call this the “Saddam Tensor”). Iran is also reassured that nothing will come from President Obama’s “not tolerating” a nuclear Iran. This may well be false comfort, but the important thing is, Tehran will confidently ignore American displeasure. Treaties and agreements with the United States are now in jeopardy. Europe and NATO must now rethink the “axiom” of the American Nuclear Umbrella – will we be there if needed? Who knows? And that doubt has repercussions worldwide – from Japan to the Middle East to Europe and, especially, to Russia and PRC. A failure to enforce something as basic as prohibiting open-air holocausts, in other words, would be very destabilizing. Worldwide.

As history’s most powerful nation – as leader of the Free World – we must stand by our commitments, and the president committed us to act in this very instance. You may not agree with the wisdom of making that commitment – hell, he may not now agree with the wisdom of making that commitment – but make that commitment he did. This is no longer about Mr Obama’s credibility … it’s about American credibility, and at a time when that commodity is devaluing daily. This is no longer about Syria … it’s about stability in turbid world. It may well be tragicomic that this is unraveling because of an ad lib during an otherwise forgettable speech, but here we are. His rhetoric profoundly impacts events far beyond the colloquial circumstances of their utterance.

I don’t think we’ve got any wriggle-room here. We have to act, with or without some contrived “coalition.” And this is true, by the way, regardless of President Obama’s ad lib – we are bound to act by numerous treaties, agreements and organizations. The problem with the president’s statement, is that it’s out there for everybody to see. Now, we either act or don’t, no spinning necessary, the president is either to be taken seriously or he is an empty suit. It doesn’t detract from the far more important implications mentioned above, but it adds a personal vector (for the president) that can’t be divorced from whatever happens.


[1] White House, United States Assessment on Syria’s Use of Chemical Weapons, August 30 2013, 1314EDT, p. 1.

[2] Ibid., pp. 1-3.

[3] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[4] Ibid., p. 1.

[5] Ibid., p. 3.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] Ibid., p. 3.

14 thoughts on “the Case for Responding to the Use of WMDs

  1. I for one am very pleased that the President has decided to involve Congress in any decision as to whether to strike Syria (unilaterally or otherwise). It is what Congress has been insisting on since he first made the threat to militarily strike Syria. It should mollify all those who were insisting that if he ordered a military strike without consulting Congress it would be an unconstitutional act. The ball is now in Congress’ court so to speak.

    • It also gives him another opportunity to do nothing – if Congress balks (which he may be counting on), he can throw up his hands and say, “There they go again! My hands are tied.” If he had called Congress back in (as PM Cameron did with Britain’s Parliament), telling them to vote on his bill Monday or Tuesday, he would seem more serious about it. At the very moment he could have launched, instead he tells us he’ll wait around until Congress gets back. It’s either amateurism or cynicism. I’ve given up trying to see his actions through the lens of foreign policy (he has none) or constitutional constraints (he sees none). He’s just lurching through events in splendid isolation.

  2. Yes I know. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Just another brick to add to the “Anbody-But-Obama” wall.

    • Well, this he has done to himself – his uncanny ability to defy gravity by hovering over the brink of a decision – his constant lawyering of past statements to make them fit a later reality. After four and a half years of watching this, I just think he’s still in over his head, and honestly doesn’t know what to do about half the time.

      Any comment on the content of the piece? I’d like to know if you think we have an international – a humanitarian – reason to punish the use of WMD and the indiscriminate endangerment of civilians by using a counter-population (rather than a counter-force) weapon. Do agree with the hazards of inaction that I see? This is the political debate the country should be having. Not about the failures or virtues of Mr Obama.

  3. To answer your question about whether or not “We” have an obligation to punish Assad for using a weapon that violates international standards of decency and is outlawed by the global community: No. I am not a Neocon and I don’t agree with their objectives. I don’t agree with the idea that we must act or react to global crises through the use of our military force. And especially not if we do it unilaterally. You know how I feel about America assuming the role of the global police force.

    • This has nothing to do with partisan babble … this is an actual real-world issue. Does the civilized world prohibit the use of aerosolized nerve gas on humans or not? And if it does, define “prohibit.” That’s not a wishy-washy term. It’s an enforceable term. If we cower, then it becomes obvious that there is no civilized world – only barbarians that dress better. This is whether or not we believe in the rule of law (all those treaties and international organizations that are supposed to save us from ourselves). Honor is about doing the right thing when it hurts – anybody can do the right thing when it’s easy.

  4. Partisan babble is it? Ok. Let me ask you this then: In the mid eighties when Ronald Reagan was the President and Saddam Hussein was gasing his “enemies” the Iranians and the Kurds, would you have urged him to step in and “punish” Saddam Hussein for violating international laws with the use of WMDs? Would you have urged him to step up, be the world leader and do the right thing even if it hurt our political interests at the time? I don’t think so. Saddam Hussein was our ally fighting against our enemy Iran. The world was ignoring what Saddam Hussein was doing. Only agencies like Amnesty International and the Red Cross (Crescent) were calling on the world to intervene to stop the mass murders. Just sayin’.

    • The babble of which I spoke was your misuse of “neocon.” I’m not sure how you’re deciding that this issue is “neocon” versus “normal” people. Don’t worry, I’m not going to explain what neocons are again – I’ll just resign myself to the fact that when you’re tired of typing “Republican,” you type “neocon.”

      But to answer your question, yes, I think the world needs to respond when WMD are used. I think that Reagan ducked his responsibility not to make it an issue, and I think he miscalculated when he slithered out of Beirut after the Marine barracks bomb. But the question at hand, is what should we do now? Not what Republican may have made mistakes in the past (read: partisan babble). I restate my questions: Does the civilized world prohibit the use of WMD or not? And if so, what do you mean by “prohibit”?

  5. Sorry. I’m losing your train of thought here. Does the civilized world “prohibit” the use of WMDs? Yes. That would be the right thing to do. I think everyone would agree. Do we alone represent the civilized world? I would say no to that. I consider Great Britain a part of the civilized world. They have said no. The civilized world seems to be waffling on whether or not “we civilized nations” need to make the statement and “prohibit” the use of WMDs or not. France says it will back us if we do take action. But even Hollende is considering consulting his congress or parliament–whatever France has–before he commits to action now. Israel definitely supports the idea and is urging us to do these surgical strikes. And so is Turkey. As far as I know the rest of the civilized nations [aka] Canada, Germany, the Scandanavian countries (our normal NATO allies) as just acting like tarbabies and are just laying low and saying nothing. The U.N. is mulling over the situation and waiting for their inspectors report.

    All of the President’s critics be they foreign or domestic are absolutely right about one thing: Lobbing a few cruise missiles into Syria to “punish” Assad with no clear objective is a futile, silly gesture. You don’t do it unless you have a clear objective in mind. That would be affecting a regime change. And Barack Obama will not make that commitment. Because he and none of the other civilized nations wants to engage in another Iraq part II. Which is surely what would ensue. IMO.

    • So “prohibit,” in your vocabulary, is just a strongly-worded “pretty please.” We should send Assad a tersely-worded letter of contempt and consider him properly chastised for breeching a “prohibition.” That’ll show all bad actors not to dare and repeat the exercise!

      The objective couldn’t be clearer – punish the Assad regime for breaking a fundamental rule of national behavior. The aim isn’t to remove him from power (although I don’t have a problem with that, but this is a specific response to a specific transgression). It’s a punitive measure. Period. The tactical measure is to hurt the regime for its reprehensible behavior. Take out command and control centers, intelligence headquarters, pock all his military runways and destroy infrastructure on those bases, things like that. Will that cripple his military? No. The people and assets have largely been moved, thanks to our president’s, again, laying out our strategy, targeting, limits and timing. But it will hurt the regime in the midst of an ongoing civil war. It will take time and treasure to restore all the facilities to normal use, and encumber the regime in the continued prosecution of a war for their very existence.

  6. At present it looks like Congress is going to agree with you. They seem to be on the brink of giving the President the green light to lob those missiles into Syria and “punish” Assad for crossing “The Red Line”. That should make you happy.

    • Well, it should go a little toward making you happy as well – after all, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Berny Sanders … even Nicholas Kritsof of the New York Times is on board. I’ve given up on trying to engage you in a discussion about the actual issues involved here, maybe if you see some fellow travelers on board, you may take a second look.

  7. No. It does not make me happy. I am not the bobblehead that you are insinuating that I am. If I were, the very announcement from Barack Obama that he was considering a military strike on Syria would have had me right on board. “Whatever my President wants to do is OK with me!”

    Just to clarify once again where I stand on this, I’ll quote Marco Rubio: “Saving credibility isn’t a reason to attack: “The United States should only engage militarily when it is pursuing a clear and attainable national security goal. Military action taken simply to send a message or save face does not meet that standard.” —Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

    And by the way one of your favorite spokesmen who your frequently agree with–Jon Bolten–also is against this idea. Just FYI.

  8. I’m pleased that you are taking a principled position. I applaud that. I know of Senator Rubio’s comments, and am troubled by them – not by his “No” vote, but by his stated reason. I, for once, don’t think President Obama’s position is a narrow political one. The statements he has been making on this issue are in support of denying any actors impunity for using WMD, even in wars of survival. This is the stand that 189 countries (representing 98% of the world’s population) have taken when they signed the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993. It’s not about “saving face,” although it may also do that. It’s like heat around a light bulb – it’s not the reason for the light bulb, but it happens when you turn it on. If done correctly, a swift strike that hurts the regime, will fulfill the Convention’s obligation. I’m afraid that Senator Rubio has succumbed to the politician’s disease of stating politically popular reasons for doing something. If his “No” vote is principled (rather than just being against Obama), than I’m OK with that. If he’s sincere about his stated reason, then I’m disappointed in him. And yes, I’ve heard and read Mr Bolton’s stand on this, and I just disagree with him.

    So you see … neither of are bobbleheads.

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