One of the most overwrought theories of life holds that the choices between good and evil are clear enough, and that therefore politics is no different: when something bad happens, the response should decisive and unambiguous.
A couple of years ago I had the chance to meet Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, Israel’s prime minister and president, respectively, in separate meetings. The subject was Iran. For Mr. Netanyahu, the issue was clear: Iran is arming itself with a nuclear capacity, and the rest of the world had to be prepared to “act.” For Mr. Peres, the conversation went in a different direction. We know Iran is up to no good. But, if we bomb Iran, what happens the next day? What are the consequences?
The discussion around what to do about Syria is equally difficult. That someone has authorized the use of poison gas on civilian populations seems clear. The use of such chemical weapons has been banned since 1925, when countries joined together in revulsion at the widespread use of gas in the First World War.
That the preponderance of evidence points to President Bashar al-Assad as the guilty party also seems clear, although for the moment that is based on information from intelligence sources. The Syrians have made a timely, effective investigation exceptionally difficult.
Washington, London and Paris have upped the rhetoric, which really began when U.S. President Barack Obama said on Aug. 20, 2012, that clear evidence of the use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Some would see Mr. Assad as simply taunting a U.S. presidential declaration, and the understandable reaction is “something must be done.” But the issue remains what exactly is the best and wisest course of action. It’s not just about expressing outrage or “teaching lessons.” It’s also about assessing outcomes and consequences.
Mr. Assad has been presiding over a humanitarian disaster, in which tens of thousands have been killed by bombs, guns, and now gas. More than a million people have become refugees, both inside the country and outside. Mr. Assad has an exceptionally powerful military for a country of Syria’s size, and has the support of Russia, Iran, and, on the ground, Hezbollah. China also carries an important veto at the UN.
Mr. Assad is a callous and brutal dictator, following in the footsteps of his father who was prepared to slaughter tens of thousands to teach his people a lesson. The world watched, complained, did nothing.
The United Nations Security Council has authorized a chemical-weapons investigation, just as it has economic and other sanctions against Syria. Many countries have spent hundreds of millions in aid to refugees. The U.S. has decided to arm a selected group of the opposition. But Russia and China have vetoed tougher action in the past, and would again.
It is interesting that the UK Parliament has delayed its full debate and vote until next week – and cross-party support for military action is far from guaranteed. While Joe Biden, John Kerry and Mr. Obama make the case that what has happened is “unacceptable” (which it clearly is), retired generals point to the equally obvious reality that Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us something about the difference between moral outrage and effective statecraft.
The shared objective has to be: an end to conflict; a transition to a broadly based government; a full accounting for the humanitarian catastrophe; and an extraordinary effort to create the conditions for stability and reconciliation. But there is nothing easy or automatic in getting there. The Syrian opposition deserves support, but we have to keep our eyes open to all the forces at work in the region. Extremists have latched on to this conflict, just as they have in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
There’s always time for “consequential thinking.” The world wanted an international constabulary after the end of the Second World War but we were unable to make it happen. Real politics intervened. There is a crying need for a continuing, thoughtful, effective response to the terrible loss of life in Syria, most of it at the hands of its own government. But let us not make the mistake of assuming that missiles alone will resolve the crisis or even assuage our consciences. And don’t make the mistake of being ambushed by our own rhetoric. Killing civilians by bombing them with aircraft is also a crime.
Mr. Assad is no worse than he was two years ago, when the United States, Britain and France backed away from military conflict. Mr. Obama’s decision to “punish” Russia’s Vladimir Putin for the Edward Snowden imbroglio by refusing a meeting was self-defeating and shortsighted. Russia’s engagement will be necessary to deal with this mess, and no amount of foot-stomping can move us from that reality. Dealing with people we don’t like and with whom we disagree is part of reality.
We still have time as countries to talk this through before we act, and not to simply see who can craft the words that most eloquently express our grief and anguish at more children dying at the hands of bombs, bullets, and gas. It is action that is required, but action that takes into account consequences.
Bob Rae is a former member of Parliament and former premier of Ontario.