President Barack Obama said earlier this week that he would consider taking military action against Syria if “hard, effective” evidence is found to prove that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has used chemical weapons against his own people. He had said earlier that using such weapons would be crossing a “red line” that would force the United States to intervene in the 2-year-old civil war.
The hawks in Congress have been swooping down, talons flared. The line has been crossed, they insist.
“Not only have our intelligence people concluded that, but as importantly the Israeli, the British and the French have as well,” U.S. Sen. John McCain told Fox News. “The president clearly stated that it was a red line and that it couldn’t be crossed without the United States taking vigorous action.”
But the president is wise to proceed with extreme caution. A decade ago, our CIA and all other western intelligence agencies were convinced that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction. That conviction was wrong, and the cost we paid in the long and bloody war it caused was high.
The U.S. should not be considering any additional involvement in Syria until more is known about what really happened. How many were killed or injured? Where and when did the suspected gas attack occur? Who deployed the weapons, and how? Was this a rogue action by military officers or a directive from Assad himself? Could one rival rebel faction have attacked another? Might deadly chemicals have been used by insurgents deliberately to draw more support from the United States and its European allies?
There’s something else we should consider about chemical weapons and red lines, and it has to do with recent history. Just over 25 years ago, on March 16, 1988, the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein rained bombs filled with a deadly mixture of mustard gas and nerve agents, including Sarin, on Kurds living in Halabja, in northern Iraq. Between 3,200 and 5,000 women, men and children died within days of the attacks, and an estimated 10,000 others survived with injuries or with resulting birth defects. (An excellent article on Halabja 25 years later, written by Gabriele Barbati, can be found on the International Business Times’ website, www.ibtimes.com.)
The attack on the Kurds was part of a genocidal campaign in which as many as 180,000 Kurds were killed by Saddam’s forces. At the time, Iraq and Iran were locked in an eight-year war, during which the United Nations confirmed that Iraq used chemical agents. TheUnited States and other western nations, fearful of the radical Islamist regime in Iran, were supporting Baghdad militarily and politically. Though there was no doubt what killed thousands in Halabja, the United States, essentially, turned a blind eye to it. The administration claimed that Iran was partially to blame, and the Security Council resolution, blandly crafted, simply cautioned both countries from using chemical weapons again.
The United States clearly saw Saddam Hussein as the lesser of two evils and did not want to raise a fuss that could lead to an Iranian victory.
If there’s a lesson from this story, it’s that we should think hard about to whom we throw our support.
The Obama administration is right to make damn sure if any line has been crossed. And it is just as wise in making sure we don’t choose enemies as our allies.