Bashar al-Assad has committed extraordinary crimes against humanity during his time as President of Syria. He has used chemical weapons, bombs and other conventional weapons to kill thousands of Syrians and make refugees out of many more. In my view a cold jail cell for all of eternity would be too good for this war criminal. That view, while perhaps not so popular in the Kremlin, is not exactly radical here in the US. Most politicians, foreign policy experts, scholars and others would agree with this general assessment.
For meaningful political analysis, it is essential to recognize this truth, but to recognize other complexities as well. One of these arises when we we hear the shopworn phrase “against his own people,” to describe Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Almost every time the atrocities Assad has committed with chemical weapons is mentioned, this clause is added. It is, in fact, true that Assad has used these weapons against Syrians. The term “his own people” is in of itself a bit offensive. I am a proud American citizen, but would chafe at being described as one of Donald Trump’s people.
That caveat aside, there is are several bigger issues involved here. The first is a moral one. The assumption is somehow that use of chemical weapons is worse when employed against one’s own citizens. This is, of course, nonsensical. Using chemical weapons against any population is morally wrong and should be met with condemnation from all international actors. This is intuitively obvious. It is hard to imagine that if the murderous Assad has decided to use chemical weapons against people in Iraq, Lebanon or Israel, for example, the world would say “well at least he didn’t use those weapons against his own people.”
The real reason the US is always careful to make this distinction is that we have used chemical weapons, to devastating effect, against people in other countries and not all that long ago. The Vietnam War may seem like another epoch entirely, but our use of chemical weapons there, most notably napalm and Agent Orange, occurred at a time Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, Mitch McConnell, HR McMaster, James Mattis, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton and many other powerful foreign policy leaders can easily recall. Decades before that, the US became the only country to ever use atomic weapons when we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the waning days of World War II. A more recent example occurred in 1988 when the US provided what might be called logistical support as Saddam Hussein, then an American client, used chemical weapons against Iranian troops in the Iraq-Iran conflict. In other words, when American foreign policy establishment figures use the phrase “against his own people” as an attempt to make Assad seem even more monstrous, they are really just verbal pyrotechnics to make us forget some of the things we have done.
There are many foundations underpinning the hawkish elements of mainstream American foreign policy, importantly an approach that Donald Trump appears to embracing with increased fervor with every passing day. One of these is the belief that the US has a unique role in the world. At its best, this view emboldens the US to provide assistance to people in need and even occasionally intervene in foreign conflicts to save lives. However, there is another side of this approach as well, one that we see in the rhetorical dance too many in the foreign policy establishment make. That is the view that is so deeply held that it is rarely noticed, let alone questioned-that the rules don’t apply to us. For example, it is much easier to feel righteous in our criticisms of Assad’s use of chemical weapons, if we make sure that our collective memory does not include our own use of those horrific and murderous weapons.
It is important to examine the Trump administration’s decision to bomb Syria in this light. The decision itself is defendable, although given the absence of any strategy framing that decision, and the concrete likelihood that it was a visceral reaction to some admittedly horrific images that the President, and apparently his daughter, saw, it is unlikely to have much of an impact. Nonetheless, the debate around the decision, in the media and among the foreign policy pundit class, is foolish and will not lead to better American policy or even a clear-headed understanding of the world as long as it continues to be grounded in our own selective memory. Holding two ideas in our heads at the same time, that Assad is a murderous dictator and that the US has a complex, and far from entirely innocent, history with chemical and other weapons, is not that difficult, and is essential for crafting a rational and effective foreign policy, in Syria and beyond.