Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a fine statement today on chemical weapons use in Syria. Too bad it was not delivered the first time these weapons were used. Too bad it was not delivered even earlier, before 100,000 civilians had been killed by traditional weapons. But now that we are where we are, Kerry made three essential points.
First, the use of chemical weapons against civilians is beyond the pale. “The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,” Kerry said. “By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.”
Second, for those hung up on what the “international community” might say, even some of the worst actors agree something must be done:
This is about the large-scale, indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else. The international community has set a clear standard, and many countries have taken major steps to eradicate these weapons.
And finally, whatever the U.N. inspectors (who were fired upon today, yet another violation of the U.N. charter) say, we have sufficient proof. Kerry said:
[O]ur understanding of what has already happened in Syria is grounded in facts, informed by conscience and guided by common sense. The reported number of victims, the reported symptoms of those who were killed or injured, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission — these all strongly indicate that everything these images are already screaming at us is real, that chemical weapons were used in Syria.
Moreover, we know that the Syrian regime maintains custody of these chemical weapons. We know that the Syrian regime has the capacity to do this with rockets. We know that the regime has been determined to clear the opposition from those very places where the attacks took place. And with our own eyes, we have all of us become witnesses.
We have additional information about this attack, and that information is being compiled and reviewed together with our partners, and we will provide that information in the days ahead.
Certainly the same could have been said when chemical weapons were first used. But now that Kerry has laid out the case, the response must be sufficient to the gravity of the offense. It is not enough to lob a few missiles, as Eliot Cohen writes in The Post today: “The temptation here is to follow the Clinton administration’s course — a futile salvo of cruise missiles, followed by self-congratulation and an attempt to change the topic. It would not work here. A minority regime fighting for its life, as Bashar al-Assad’s is, can weather a couple of dozen big bangs.” He adds, “More important, no one — friends, enemies or neutrals — would be fooled. As weak as the United States now appears in the region and beyond, we would look weaker yet if we chose to act ineffectively. A bout of therapeutic bombing is an even more feckless course of action than a principled refusal to act altogether.”
Whether the president has the spine to do more than a symbolic strike remains an open question. But whether intentional or not, Kerry’s statement makes it harder for the president to take the minimalist approach.
Syria should be a lesson to non-interventionists on the right and left. Wars do not “end” as Obama said, of their own accord. Eventually, the United States must act. In this case, acting sooner would have prevented great carnage and given us better options. Overthrowing Assad before thousands of jihadis arrived would have been infinitely better (from a humanitarian and strategic point of view) than retaliating after chemical weapons are used and when the opposition forces are filled with unsavory characters.
Make no mistake, however. Any pipe dream suggesting a negotiated settlement in which Assad continues to rule any part of Syria is entirely unacceptable. Surely, Kerry — who pushed a “negotiated solution” for so long — must recognize that. If nothing else, his words today confirm how grossly deficient our policy has been to date.