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If 'red line' is international, US should respect it as such
Publication Date : 10-09-2013
US President Barack Obama has pressed hard for military intervention on Syria to punish Bashar al-Assad's government for allegedly using chemical weapons. The UN report on the alleged chemical attacks has yet to be completed but the US said it is certain the regime forces deployed the weapons.
A key part of Obama's argument is he did not pluck the now famous “red line” he mentioned a year ago “out of thin air”.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime ... that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president said as he answered a reporter's question in August 2012.
On September 4 Obama elaborated on these comments, suggesting the “red line” is not his invention, but the world's.
“I didn't set a red line, the world set a red line. My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line. And America and Congress' credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important,” Obama said, making the comments in Stockholm, the home of the Nobel Foundation that gave him the Peace Prize in 2009.
It is telling that in making the case for military engagement to a reluctant American public, the president is spending considerable efforts on drawing a line between him and the “red line.” Is the “red line” an arbitrary criterion set by Obama or is it indeed an international norm? In other words, are there universal rules in war?
Human beings have been trying to shove the cruelty and chaos of war into a moral framework since ancient times. In Rome, a just war had to have the right cause (national defence or retaliation for pillaging or breach of agreement) and the formal blessing of priests. The idea of just war was taken up by early Christian philosophers such as Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.
The “just war” principle, derived from these forbears and developed further over time, states that a war can only be waged as the last resort by the legitimate authority for the right intention (such as self-defence). A just war must be with a fair chance of success and aimed to ultimately restore peace. It must also be fought with just means: that the weapons used discriminate combatants and non-combatants. These ideas are the basis of the Geneva Conventions and Geneva Protocol, which are probably what Obama meant by “international norms.”
The use of chemical weapons on civilians crosses the red line as it violates the section of the Geneva Conventions that outlaws “indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations...” and more specifically the Geneva Protocol that outlaws the use of “asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices” and “bacteriological methods”.
As Sun Tzu said in “The Art of War”, military action is an action against the normal order of things. It is hard to set the rules for a competition in which the termination of human lives is a key feature, but that does not mean these rules should not exist. But in order for such rules to work, they should not be used as justification for national interests.
When Obama sets international norms such as modern protocols and the historical ideas of just war, as the “red line,” he also bounds the US under the same standards. Without making military strikes the last resort and deployed through proper authority, the US would also be crossing some red lines written by the world. That means the US should exhaust all diplomatic venues before striking, as well as confirm beyond reasonable doubt that Assad is in fact behind the attacks. And even after that, the US should ensure the strike has a reasonable chance of success. That means the military options the Obama administration takes should be aimed not only to “make a stand” but to achieve what it claims to be doing, which is either destroying Syria's chemical weapons or making a big enough deterrence that Assad never again uses chemical weapons.