Dozens of commentators in our polarized politics and political commentary have weighed in on the circumstances in Syria, particularly the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government and the American response to it. While most note that there are no good choices, most also take the Obama administration to task for doing the wrong thing, which happens to be:
- Not having supported the rebels earlier with aid and arms
- Not going forward with military plans to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons
- Not getting authorization from Congress first
- Delaying military plans in order to get authorization from Congress
- Even thinking about intervening in any way, shape, or form
David Sanger, in the New York Times Sunday Review (Tripping On His Own Red Line?), notes that Obama has tried to refrain from intervening in the several Middle East crises, but that a single statement, “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” has, according to Sanger, trapped Obama. Sanger then notes that Obama is not intervening to stop the mass killing as awful as the killing by chemical weapons, and seems to ask the question, “Why?”
Interestingly, the answer is elsewhere in the Sunday Times. A reader writes to The Ethicist on Rules of Enhancement in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and asks why we punish uses of particular performance-enhancing drugs, but not other performance-enhancing actions, noting Tommy John surgery even pre-emptively. In his answer the ethicist notes that performance-enhancing drugs are less dangerous than collision sports, and that there are no sound moral arguments against P.E.D.’s. He goes on to distinguish, however, between morality, “personal behavior”, and ethics, which “create the framework for how a culture operates.” He adds, “P.E.D.’s are forbidden because that’s what our fabricated rules currently dictate.”
Applied to international relations, while the world has not been able to prohibit war, we have created specific rules against the use of chemical and biological weapons. It might not be a sound moral argument, the ethicist might say, to overlook the horrors of warfare such as is occurring in Syria now while drawing a red line around use of chemical weapons. But as in sports, also in international governance, we fabricate rules by which to live, and the Syrian leader and his military have seemingly violated those precise rules. As in sports, also in the international arena, someone has to enforce the rules.
Which is not to say that I have some advice for the Obama administration on how to proceed. Like others, I see the dangers avoided by not supporting the rebels earlier on, and the dangers which will result from our inaction. I see the danger of not going forward immediately with plans to punish Syria militarily, and the danger of going forward without getting backing from Congress and the people. I see the dangers in intervening at all, and those in not intervening. However, an Obama administration or American intervention because the Syrian government has used chemical weapons is of a different nature than an intervention for general reasons. We made the rules; now we have to abide by them.