The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Did He or Didn't He?

Yesterday Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy reported that the State Department concluded Butcher Assad used chemical weapons against his own people back on December 23. Al Jazeera reported the incident at the time, but it was hardly noticed, and little action or interest was shown by the international community. Now, however, it appears that the State Department investigated the attack at the time and concluded chemical weapons may well have been involved. Washington’s response to the news was to cover it up and ignore it, even though President Obama previously said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line.”

The growing controversy puts the White House in a tight spot. The administration would look less than resolute if the reports stand up and no action is taken. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime—but also to other players on the ground—that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. . . . That would change my calculus; that would change my equation,” President Obama said in August.

To avoid a stark contrast between words and deeds, the White House scrambled to play down the story today, as the FT reports: “Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said in a statement that reporting about the incident in Homs was not ‘consistent with what we believe to be true about the Syrian chemical weapons programme.’”

At this point we are at most looking at an isolated incident of chemical weapons use.

It’s important to remember that in situations like this there is a lot of atrocity propaganda, and much of it turns out to be exaggerated, if not totally false. The British accused the Germans in 1914 of tossing Belgian babies on bayonets during their march into that country, and the Kuwaitis circulated false atrocity claims against Saddam Hussein during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.

However, sometimes the monsters are real. Hitler and Stalin and Mao were all guilty of horrors greater than the ones they were accused of.

What’s happening on the ground in Syria is bad enough without chemical weapons, but the world has learned to live pretty comfortably with daily news of more massacres in that faraway land. If reports accumulate and more evidence of chemical weapons is found, though, the pressure for intervention will grow. At this point Western intervention looks unlikely; France is committed, for example, to Mali, so it would not be able to play a big role in Syria. The Gulf Arabs and the Turks for different reasons are also hanging back, and the Obama administration is not on the hunt for new Middle Eastern quagmires.

Assad may not survive the rebellion, but he has already outlived the blather in Washington about the brave new doctrine of the “duty to protect.” It is a “duty to protect when convenient,” and that is a very different thing.

Published on January 16, 2013 9:00 am