Barack Obama's meteoric ascent to US President started on October 2, 2002, when he addressed an anti-Iraq War rally in Chicago, repeating several times the mantra that he did not oppose all wars, just dumb wars. Take care to read it. It is not a pacifist speech, and even less an isolationist one. His point was that even though Saddam was in breach of UN resolutions to demonstrate the destruction of stockpiles of WMD, and while Iraq had form in using poison gas at Halabja against the Kurds, the international tests that had been applied to Iraq to trigger regime change - confirmed stockpiles of WMD, intent to use these, and substantial failure of the No-Fly Zones and sanctions containing Saddam - had not been met.
Barack Obama was at pains to emphasise that there were circumstances in which he would be prepared to authorise military force against Saddam, it was just the case that those circumstances were not present in Autumn 2002. Saddam was under international sanction to prevent his use of weapons and to provide evidence that he was degrading his stockpiles. Obama's argument was that one aim was being achieved, and the other one was uncertain. Both would have had to have failed for Iraq to have crossed the red line set by international law.
When Shock and Awe was unleashed in March 2003, Saddam was contained and encircled by US military superiority in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraqi Kurdistan, and from Persian Gulf and Mediterranean fleets. The two groups that he had most recently committed war crimes against, the Kurds and the Kuwaitis, were protected by No-Fly Zones and his low, but persistent, threat meant that the US and its allies had more than a decade to build up a massive containment infrastructure. UN weapons inspectors were constantly frustrated and harassed by Saddam, but as the evidence has made clear, few if any weapons were left in 2003. Saddam's persistent flouting of international will now seems to have been the last play of a cornered, prickly psychopath.
Whatever his relative rank on the psychotic scale, Bashar al-Assad has deliberately and openly flouted the one principle of pre-Iraq internationalism that could still left: he has used WMD, and not just for a tactical advantage, but for the strategic calculation that if he is going down he will create as much fear and disruption as he possibly can. No quiet Russian dacha for Assad.
Perhaps before instinctively blaming Barack Obama for everything bad that happens in Syria from the moment the first cruise missile is launched against Damascus, people should read what Human Rights Watch says about what Assad has been doing since the insurgency against his regime started in the Spring of 2011.
Insurgents, or 'terrorists' as the Ba'athists would have it, can be detained for 60 days without being brought before a judge by any one of several dozen security agencies. No reading of rights or phone calls, people just disappear and then (sometimes) reappear again. 'Security agencies' in this case refers not just to the police and the army, but also paramilitary riot squads and several pro-government militia. As ever in brutal, paranoid, dictatorships, there is never one over-arching security agency, but several competing to prove their ruthless brutality and their loyalty to the boss.
The Human Rights Watch report -titled unambiguously 'Torture Archipelago' - documents massive, institutionalised, torture and state-sanctioned violence including beatings with electric batons, burning the skin with battery acid, the pulling of fingernails, the gang-rape of women, sodomising men with metal bars, and hanging by the wrists while being beaten. In one documented case an eight year old boy in Aleppo was beaten by Assad's goons in order to force his fellow prisoners to cooperate. And this doesn't include the 25,000 killings of insurgents and civilians in battle.
These are not unknown sadists and anonymous bad apples. The torturers seem to revel in their public profile and what they imagine to be their bad-ass style. Take Maj Gen. Abd Al-Fatah Qudsiyah, Director of Military Intelligence for Damascus, the prime suspect behind the chemical attacks, who has been under a travel ban and asset freeze by the EU since as far back as May 2011. None of this is new stuff.
Nor is the Syrian and Russian claim that the war is being prosecuted by a few 'terrorists' credible. So many people have been rounded up in the counter-insurgency that the Syrian security forces have had to set up 'temporary' detention facilities in schools, hospitals even sports stadiums. I probably don't need to point out that access to legal counsel or human rights monitors is limited. One phrase from the Human Rights Watch report is so stark it bears quoting verbatim: "The vast majority of detention cases documented by Human Rights Watch can be qualified as enforced disappearances" due to the lack of due process or contact allowed between prisoners and their families. I could go on and on, but you get the essential point: this is not Sweden we are talking about.
Whatever the merits or demerits of Iraq, how can what is broadly termed the anti-war left (although there is a significant anti-war right now too) be opposed to what is essentially a return to the liberal internationalist status quo ante? There are some things you don't tolerate, and among these are wars of conquest, genocide, and using weapons whose principle aim is not just to kill people (although they are awfully good at that) but to create panic and trauma among the living.
Ever since Vietnam, America and other powers have struggled to win asymmetric wars - wars where conventional military superiority confronts guerrilla warfare and disregard for the laws of war set out in the Geneva, Vienna and Hague Conventions. Tomahawk missiles and stealth bombers are designed for the wars that Generals and politicians like to fight, not the ones that they actually do. But this attack in Syria represents something different - it is morally asymmetric. Assad is exploiting the fact that much of the rest of the world is torn between revulsion towards chemical weapons and being tired of war in general. And he has proved his point rather well that the democratic systems that he so vehemently represses at home are no more effective in the international community at large.
The one practical argument against intervention is that military action degrades the democratic consent upon which democracies go to war. But even this is an invidious argument, as it amounts to 'do as we want or we will poison the well of democracy that intervention is premised on protecting.' What is that if not holding a gun to people's heads?
The whole anti-war argument, which is not otherwise malintended, rests upon the idea that the big, bad United States is bullying those weaker than it again. This despite David Cameron's argument at the G20 that just about every single national intelligence agency with ability to collect credible evidence on Syria other than Russia and China agrees that the only party capable of having the logistical, technical and financial (not to mention moral) capacity to launch the attack on Ghouda is the Syrian state.
The Russian response to this has been quite literally no more sophisticated than 'we don't believe you' until Monday's volte-face request to Syria to put all of its chemical stockpile under international control. This despite insisting for two years that Syria was besieged by terrorists and never possessed any WMD.
It is tiring having to point out yet again that, while far from perfect, if it is an empire then the United States is an unusually benevolent one. It does not launch wars of conquest. It does not slaughter captured enemies. It is ruled by laws, not by fiat. Much of what we fragilely, hesitantly, call the international system - a system that has avoided world war for seventy years - is based on laws and principles written by or enumerated by Americans such as Robert Jackson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Opponents will counter that done strikes and targeted assassinations are still continuing, not to mention the recent history of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. All of these are failings of the United States. But assassination of terrorists is being equated to the slaughter of civilians by Sarin gas - just about the most efficiently evil thing to do. I very gently suggest that Assad, who rules by decree, murders dissenters, their associates and families, and actively tries to destroy his neighbours, is in a different league of evil to Barack Obama.
'I don't oppose all wars, I just oppose dumb wars'. If we are setting the bar so high that even the use of the most terrible weapons against civilians does not clear it - weapons of murder, not of war - then we can say goodbye to the whole idea of liberal internationalism, an idea that survived two world wars, a cold war and genocide, and accept that there is nothing between neo-Rumsfeldianism on the one hand and isolationism on the other. That may just be the one thing that is more dangerous than Bashar al-Assad.Suggest a correction