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POV: William Keylor on What History Says about Obama’s Syrian Dilemma

Should we follow the path of Bush I in 1990, or Clinton in 1999?


“POV,” a new addition to BU Today, is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu.

On the eve of what appears to be a robust military action against the Syrian regime in retaliation for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own civilian population, a brief review of historical precedents may be in order.

Chemical warfare is nothing new in the modern world. Both sides employed a variety of toxic chemicals during World War I, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. No one raised serious objections to their use. Despite the Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibiting chemical warfare, Italy used poison gas against Ethiopia in the mid-1930s and Japan used it against China during the Second World War. Again, no expressions of outrage from the international community. More recently, Iraq used mustard gas and nerve agents against Iranian soldiers and against its own civilian Kurdish population during the Iran-Iraq War of 1982 to 1988. Since the United States was supporting Iraq in that war, the Reagan administration did not utter a peep in protest against this blatant violation of “international norms.”

US and Israeli intelligence has reputedly obtained evidence of the use of poison gas by the Syrian military against civilians near Damascus. This situation presents the Obama administration with a formidable challenge that calls to mind more recent historical precedents. Should Washington await the report of the UN inspection team currently in Syria, which will presumably confirm the use of poison gas by the Assad regime? Should it then take the matter to the UN Security Council and introduce a resolution authorizing a military response? With such an appeal to the Security Council, Obama would be following in the footsteps of President George H. W. Bush, who won the Council’s authorization—supported even by Iraq’s longtime ally, the Soviet Union—for the use of force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1990 and 1991. Such an approach would be just the opposite of the 2002–2003 policy of President George W. Bush, who initiated unilateral action against Iraq after failing to win Security Council approbation in the face of a veto threat from France. (Had Washington awaited the findings of the UN inspection team that was then in Iraq investigating Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, the loss of many lives and billions of dollars might have been prevented. But Bush II decided to act because of the reputed imminent threat to the security of the United States, and Congress and public opinion backed him up.)

It would be difficult to demonstrate that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime poses a direct threat to American security. The argument for military action is a purely humanitarian one. The opponents of the former alternative of patient diplomacy clamor for the prompt use of American military power, represented by American destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, to attack Syria’s “command and control” in order to punish the perpetrators of this humanitarian catastrophe and deter them from ever doing it again. Even assuming a guilty verdict by the UN inspectors, they argue, the Russian veto would prevent the UN Security Council from authorizing collective action. In the absence of a prompt and robust response, they warn, the credibility of the international norm prohibiting chemical warfare would be severely undermined. Such inaction would perhaps embolden Assad to resume such attacks and encourage other states to follow Syria’s successful example.

The historical precedent supporting this call for unilateral action is the aerial war against Serbia in 1999 in response to the ethnic cleansing of that country’s Muslim minority in the province of Kosovo. Serbia then, like Syria now, could count on its Russian ally to veto a resolution authorizing collective action in the Security Council. The Clinton administration thereupon circumvented the UN by assembling a “coalition of the willing” (including mainly America’s two NATO allies Britain and France) to mount air attacks that resulted in not a single American casualty, but forced the Serbian regime to halt its maltreatment of the Kosovars.

So, is it to be Bush I in 1990 and 1991, or Clinton in 1999? Go it alone, with a small coalition of like-minded allies? Or engage in the tedious, time-consuming process of international diplomacy to mobilize the international community in support of collective action. If the UN inspectors confirm the Assad regime’s responsibility for the horrendous chemical attack and Russia blocks a Security Council resolution authorizing collective action, President Obama would be in a much stronger position to take military action. Having made a good-faith, but abortive effort to emulate George H. W. Bush, the way would be clear to adopt the Bill Clinton approach to an earlier humanitarian disaster. But to do so he must await absolutely irrefutable confirmation of Assad’s responsibility for the attacks, or he runs the risk of replicating the disastrous precedent of George W. Bush.

William Keylor, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history and international relations and director of the International History Institute, can be reached wrkeylor@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


9 Comments on POV: William Keylor on What History Says about Obama’s Syrian Dilemma

  • Douglas Zook on 08.30.2013 at 9:02 am

    The author’s attack-relatively-alone-or-with-others does not reflect lessons from history. History repeatedly shows that revenge and punishment attacks do very little other than cause more deaths of innocent lives, build even greater divisions on a regional and global scale, and endanger the already eroding ecology/resources on which humanity depends, and only serve to just briefly appease segments of American citizenry. One alternative would be to shore up selected rebel forces, for only actions from within will have a potential lasting and meaningful change. Impositions from outside by empire-like powers such as the USA often resort to nearly always fail and make for even worse situations.

    • Don on 08.30.2013 at 7:08 pm

      Keep in mind that the Rebels attempting to defeat the Asad Government are Al-Queda backed. What is the next step if they defeat Asad and take control of his chemical weapon stockpiles? How would we handle this if the geography was Pakistan and Al-Queda was about to take posession of nuclear weapons?

      • Peter on 09.03.2013 at 6:49 am

        It’s quite simple. Obama is asking for unlimited power. The congress will fall for this, because there is little push back from the senile Republican leadership.
        He will use coordinated missile strikes to obliterate Assad (and many innocents). Then the Saudi backed rebels will liberate the country. The democratic idealists will lose out to the hard-line islamasists, who will continue terrorizing the remaining Christians, Alawites, Druze, Armenians, Kurds, Shia Etc. A hardline Sunni state controlled by the Saudis will be installed and be as popular as the ousted Morsi regime was. It is already agreed pressure will be be taken off Israel.

  • Question & Comment on 08.30.2013 at 9:38 am

    Why does the UN have the veto system if there is proof that a blatant violation of “international norms” has occurred? What is the history behind this?

    Also, this is a great piece, but I wish the photo was different. I would have posted this on facebook for others to read, but I felt like some would have been offended by the photo, so I didn’t.

    • Jim in NOLA on 08.30.2013 at 10:40 pm

      Tough call on that photo. On one hand, I get your point, it is very…….graphic. Horrifically tragic. On the other hand, this is the reality of chemical warfare. The fact that is has been done against civilians is even more abhorrent. It’s one thing to read about it and think, “How awful”; it’s a whole ‘nother thing to see the reality of the ramifications.

      • Peter on 09.04.2013 at 8:56 pm

        It pulled my emotional strings too. Fortunately my rational hemisphere was able to question who was mishandled the merchandise.

  • Anonymous on 08.30.2013 at 9:35 pm

    We have right authority. We have right intention. We have a reasonable expectation of success. We have the ability to conduct a proportional response. This is the last resort- all diplomatic efforts have failed. 100,000 are dead. It is long past time to do something. Anything. Anything but sitting on the sidelines and acting like R2P only applies when it’s easy and popular. But if we are going to do something, it better be enough to make Bashar al-Assad flinch.

    • Marie on 09.03.2013 at 3:19 pm

      I don’t think our country should do anything, we should sit back and see if some of the other middle eastern countries step up and do something. We should not be going into country’s that don’t want us there, we should take care of our affairs and people here, we have plenty of homeless and hungry people here.

      • Peter on 09.04.2013 at 8:41 pm

        Why should we be involved? There is no US interest there other than to save face. There is little evidence to support the allegations that Assad was behind this. There is no reason he would pick this time when the UN inspectors were in town.
        Syrian terrorists have already been caught with sarin on the Turkish border. Show us the public the evidence! There is little public support for any action, there is no international support for any action, yet somehow the regime has persuaded a majority of a senate committee to go as far as putting american troops on the ground.

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