There is a scene from the Nicholas Cage movie “Lord of War” in which an Interpol agent is talking to Cage’s character, a notorious arms dealer. The agent says to Cage, “Do you know why I do what I do? I mean, there are more prestigious assignments. Keeping track of nuclear arsenals — you’d think that’d be more critical to world security. But it’s not. No, nine out of 10 war victims today are killed with assault rifles and small arms — like yours. Those nuclear weapons sit in their silos. Your AK-47, that’s the real weapon of mass destruction.”
Not content with the crimes it has already committed against its own people, intelligence reports indicate that the Assad regime has finally unleashed its chemical weapons, crossing the very clear “red line” established by the Obama administration as the threshold for triggering armed intervention. And yet no intervention has come.
The hesitation in Washington is understandable. This is a president who came into power largely on the promise of an end to the disastrous policies of the Bush era. A land war in a religiously and ethnically torn Middle Eastern country without a clear notion of what victory would look like has parallels to Iraq virtually too obvious to bother pointing out.
But the fictional Interpol agent hit on a sinister question. Why is the murder of hundreds using a “weapon of mass destruction” horrible enough to require the intervention of the world, when the mass destruction of tens of thousands with conventional means was not?
It is a question without a clear answer and one that I suspect many in Washington are asking themselves now. But that is hardly the only one raised by this week’s developments. For example: Does failure to respond provide a dangerous example that one can use chemical weapons with impunity? Perhaps.
But also: Has failure to respond already provided a dangerous example that one can slaughter thousands with artillery and rifles with impunity? Perhaps that too.
Obama has made it very clear that chemical weapons usage means Western intervention. Failure to respond would make it very clear to the world that the word of America means little. (But a little voice in my head reminds me how many died needlessly in Vietnam for the sake of American “credibility.”)
There simply are no good options in Syria. A no-fly zone or air strikes would perhaps provide a middle ground that would be enough for the rebels to seize power. Arming the rebels might as well.
It’s even conceivable that Western boots on the ground could knock out Assad and get out again quickly and efficiently. (Just because it didn’t work in Iraq does not make it impossible.)
But even the quickest and easiest of victories would bring with it its own set of problems. The primary one is the simple one of who governs Syria with Assad gone. At the moment, it seems very likely Islamists with ties to al-Qaida would emerge on top. Afghanistan in the ‘80s showed quite clearly that such men do not become more friendly to the West just because they share a common enemy.
Or maybe no one takes power and the entire country remains mired in Iraq or Lebanon-style chaos, leaving the West stuck in yet another Mideastern quagmire.
This column has never aimed to provide all the answers. This week, I don’t claim to have any. That something horrible in Syria is happening is beyond question. That we, in the West, can fix it is not.