Red Lines and Invisible Lines: The Geography and Chemistry of Political Crime
“It is also profoundly about who we are. We are the United States of America. We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations. This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community, this matters to us.”
So argued U.S Secretary of State John Kerry on August 30th. He is correct on two important points: the chemical weapons attack of August 21st was a crime against conscience and a crime against humanity. But it was not a crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, for there is no international community (save when rhetorically constructed to suit a major power’s national interests) and it was not against the norm of the international community, for the same reason.
To the extent that there are international relations and interconnections (relations and interconnections which might someday become but are certainly not now) an international community, the norm of these relations and interconnections is competition: political, economic, military. The aim of competition is: maximise gains for self (or in an extended sense, national ruling class). The practice of self-maximization requires doing that which is necessary to ensure victory. That is what every competitor strives to achieve. In military conflict ensuring victory requires that the will of the enemy to fight be broken, which entails killing and maiming and destroying life-support infrastructure to the point where the opponent gives up. Civil wars are particularly ferocious in this regard. Since all parties to the conflict are already “home” there is nowhere to which the losing faction can retreat. Hence, civil wars tend to be fights to the death.
Thus far the Syrian Civil War has killed approximately 100 000 people, perhaps as many as 1400 by the chemical weapon attack of August 21st, if the United States intelligence reports are correct. (Which there is reason to doubt, although it is not my purpose here to raise those doubts). If the argument that Kerry articulated is to be accepted, it entails accepting the conclusion that the preceding 99 000 deaths were not as morally egregious, not crimes against humanity and conscience, since they were not invoked as grounds for humanitarian intervention. If there is some unique moral (as opposed to physical-medical) horror to chemical weapons use, then it would seem to follow further from his argument that there would be no uniquely immoral atrocity committed were Assad (or his opponents) to kill the entire opposed force and its supporting population by conventional means.
This conclusion sounds outrageous, but then consider: millions were killed in civil wars in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan by conventional means, and these did not provoke Ciceronian speeches before the United States Congress imploring congresswomen and men to authorise life-saving intervention. The operative value here is therefore not life and its protection from military destruction.
So, rhetorically, chemistry seems to matter (it is immoral to kill with gas, less so or not at all by bullets, artillery shells, etc.). In political reality, however, which really drives the rhetoric, what really counts, is geography. It is morally wrong to kill some groups of people in regions in which major powers have national interests, but the lives of black people in zones where major powers have no national interests count for nothing in the calculus of major power real politik.
What does not matter, clearly, is killing human beings to advance political interests. If the interests served by the killing are judged legitimate by major powers, then killing is permissible, even morally obligatory (as Syrians who have the misfortune to live near the cruise missile strikes that are surely coming are about to find out).
The Vacuity and Plasticity of Universal Values
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the imperfect “American interpretation of Universal Values” has killed millions of civilians in Viet Nam, Latin America, and the Middle East. Since September 11th 2001 hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghanis have been sacrificed to keep the American “homeland” safe. While there has been no use of nerve gas, Viet Nam involved chemical warfare by means of Agent Orange (up to 4.8 million Vietnamese directly exposed, millions more continuing to suffer the effects) and napalm, (which can kill by burning or by suffocating victims in the general vicinity of the enormously intense fires it caused) while Iraq and Afghanistan have been littered with spent shell casings made of depleted uranium, a known carcinogen particularly dangerous for children, as pediatricians and oncologists in Iraq have discovered. Closer to home, the CIA conducted drug experiments on Americans and Candians in the 1950′s and 1960′s. Americans kill prisoners with chemical weapons (execution by “lethal injection). Its allies have also used chemical weapons and chemical agents without incurring the cutting casuistry of Secretaries of State. According to a recent article in Foreign Policy, the CIA had knowledge of Iraqi chemical weapons attacks on Iran during the Iran-Iraq War (itself egged on and encouraged by the United States. Israel is known to have used white phosphorous munitions against civilian targets in its invasions of Lebanon (1982) and Gaza (2009).
Imperfections in the application of universal values can be forgiven, for no human being, nation, or political entity can understand with absolute clarity that which a particular situation morally requires. That which cannot be accepted is Kerry’s claim that America is trying to (imperfectly) apply its universal values. It is trying to project its power in a way that maximally damages Iranian interests. That is the real goal of American policy here: use the weakening of Iran’s ally Assad to gain even more leverage over Iran itself. And if this goal requires more Syrian lives to be sacrificed (because they happen to belong to the wrong faction, or they just happen to live next to a missile target), so be it. They are not being killed by chemical weapons, so one supposes they have nothing (morally) to complain about.
Ways Forward, Real and Imaginary
But something must be done, all sides declaim. Yes, something must be done, but why should “something” equate to “missile strikes?” The words are not, after all, synonymous. If something must be done for the sake of the suffering civilian population, wrecking more of their lives and life-support systems with cruise missiles is not what they need.
Secretary Kerry is certainly correct that the situation in Syria (as all international and civil conflicts are) is messy and complex. The overlapping and contradictory alliances, the fear of extermination driving the ruling Alawite minority, the legitimate rage against its abuses of power over fifty years of rule driving the secular opposition, the dogmatic absolutism of the Islamist opposition, the total absence (from what I can see from this vantage point) of any potentially unifying nationalist-populist or socialist principles means that, as Kerry again said, peace cannot be wished into being. The slaughter is not going to suddenly stop.
What could slow and then certainly stop the brutality is an immediate freeze on all weapons sales and transfers into the conflict zone. No war can continue without weapons, so if Russia, the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar agreed amongst themselves to stop fueling the fire, the combatants, no matter how deep and visceral their antipathies, would have to stop fighting. That is not abstract philosophising or wishful thinking or soft-hearted moralism, but political physics: fires need fuel to burn; cut off the fuel supply, the fire must go out. Once the fires start dying down, the United States, if it is to be actually rather than rhetorically true to its “universal values” with will use its power to initiate, rather than stall, peace talks.
But it is almost unimaginable that the path of peace, the only path that can end suffering, will be followed. Politicians learn nothing from history, they will not relent even in the face of self-caused calamities. Generation after generation the sisyphusian stone of regional and global domination is rolled up the hill, each generation it rolls back down, crushing how many millions in its wake, only to find another generation, fully cognisant of what happened the last time, push it on up again.