Whatever President Barack Obama’s threat of U.S. military retaliation for the chemical weapons attack on Syrian citizens has accomplished, it reasserted America’s moral leadership.
However badly Obama handled the run-up to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s suspected gassing that killed some 1,400, including hundreds of children, it’s clear that without Obama’s missile rattling, Assad would have the green light to commit mass murder again. The rest of the world would have ho-hummed this crime against humanity. And, in the long run, America’s growing, irresponsible and cowardly isolationism would have emboldened Iran’s and North Korea’s march toward nuclear armament.
Just as important was Obama’s response to the tepid public reaction in America to the massacre, a reaction that revealed a troubling strain of moral amnesia. It was as if America’s conscience had taken a long nap, if not gone into a coma.
Nothing has better exposed that vacuum than the increasingly popular rhetoric that there’s no difference between conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, such as the sarin gas used in Syria. It goes something like: Why don’t we care as much about the Syrians killed by conventional weapons?
Perhaps a letter writer to the Albuquerque (New Mexico) Journal best described the sentiment: “In Syria over 100,000 men, women and children have been killed during this civil war. What is the difference if you die during an artillery barrage on a neighborhood, a snipers (sic) bullet fired at a school, a mortar attack on a road, a mine buried in a marketplace, a bomb dropped from a plane, by a bullet fired from an AK-47 (assault rifle) or from a poison gas attack? You are dead just the same.”
Have we sunk so low in our collective conscience that we no longer understand the profound difference between conventional weapons and nuclear, chemical and biological weapons? No diminishing the horror of war and death, whether delivered by conventional weapons or WMDs. But there’s a reason why that just about every nation in the world agreed in the 1925 Geneva Convention to ban chemical weapons.
Bullets and bombs are aimed; chemical weapons by their nature are dispersed and indiscriminate. If they can be described as directed at a target, they are intended to kill everyone, making no distinction between combatants and innocents. Children finding safety in bomb shelters are hunted down by heavier-than-air gas. Gas has no rifle sights; you don’t look through a scope and pull a trigger when the target comes into the cross-hairs. Gas spreads amoebalike, consuming every thing in its path.
Then comes the manner of the maiming and dying. You don’t just die; you suffer horribly and expire hideously. Sarin and similar gases break down an enzyme that allows nerves to communicate, causing the loss of control of bodily functions — painfully so. Symptoms include uncontrolled spasms, foaming, urination, defecation, vomiting, intestinal pain, blisters and burning eyes. Mercifully, death can come within minutes. Those who don’t die suffer lifelong neurological damage.
Everyone who thinks, “What difference does it make?” raise you hands.
Obama last week eloquently stated the case against the amoral isolationists of both the libertarian and far left bent. “We have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional …
“I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world toward peace and prosperity and recognizing that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone.”
For whatever reason, that threat of U.S. military action prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin to open a channel to a negotiated solution. Despite Putin’s knock on “American exceptionalism” in a New York Times op-ed last week, I didn’t see any leadership coming from the former KGB agent until America threatened to use its power to achieve humanitarian goals. All we heard from Putin was a ridiculous suggestion that the chemical attack was launched not from his client regime in Syria but from its opponents.
Wherever we go from here — whether Congress endorses a military response, whether Obama decides to go ahead without an endorsement, whether the United Nations finally decides to act, whether Putin and Assad hold up their end of whatever bargain is struck and the plethora of other “whethers” still facing us — Obama’s proclamation of America’s moral core is useful and welcome.
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