By Ted Braun
An animated debate has been going on in our nation the past several weeks on whether to use a diplomatic solution or military force to remove the threat of chemical weapons in Syria. President Obama has been ready to use the latter option but has found strong opposition from Congress and the general population. Then when Russia proposed to the U.S. that international monitors take over and destroy Syria's arsenal of chemical weapons, Obama agreed to try the diplomatic approach first.
In an address to the nation on August 10 Obama announced the change and stated, "America is not the world's policeman. And yet, when with modest effort and risk we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at risk in Syria."
The next day the New York Times carried an interesting op-ed piece submitted by President Vladimir Putin of Russia in response. In it he wrote "I carefully studied his [President Obama's] address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States' policy is 'what makes America different. It's what makes us exceptional.' It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord's blessing, we must not forget that God created us equal."
Obama's decision to forego a military attack, at least for now, has had an interesting result. It has saved him from becoming an international criminal. The Nuremberg Judgment in 1945 declared "To initiate a war of aggression...is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime." Under the United Nations Treaty, signatories like the U.S. pledge not to use—or even threaten to use—military force against another nation without U.N. Security Council approval, unless already attacked or in imminent danger of attack.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in The Hague, Netherlands, will oversee the removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons. The chief purpose of this organization is to police a global treaty known as the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which bars the development, production, stockpiling and use of chemical arms. One major problem with this removal process, however, is that it doesn't pertain to the chemical weapons belonging to various rebel groups in or near Syria, or to national enemies of Syria such as Israel and Egypt that have used such weapons in the past. In fact, Syria's chemical weapons program was established in response to Israel's development of a chemical and nuclear arsenal.
Israel would be an especially important participant to have in an international conference on chemical weapons. So far, it has refused to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and has used white phosphorous as a weapon in Gaza. In 2007 the Syrian government made peace overtures to Israel, offering to recognize Israel and agree to strict security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory, but the proposal got nowhere. The enmity between the two nations has been behind the Israel lobby's recent push for a U.S. military attack on Syria.
The most important participant in an international conference on chemical weapons, however, would be our own nation which has a long history of using them. During the Vietnam War we dropped 20 million tons of napalm on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, killing 3 million people. In the Iraq War we used depleted uranium, and people in Fallujah are still suffering from illnesses and gross birth deformities. The Reagan government helped Saddam Hussein to wage war against Iran in the 1980s while aware that he was using nerve and mustard gas. In 1997 the U.S. agreed to decommission 31,000 tons of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other agents it possessed, but hasn't done so yet. And this doesn't include all the adults and children killed and injured by the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What all of this history demonstrates is that the U.S.-Russian-Syrian discussion about chemical weapons needs to become not only a regional one but global in scope. It will be a very difficult discussion because there is a lot of distrust, misunderstanding, bias, anger, and shameful activity on all sides.
Maybe we need first of all to begin with the subject matter that presidents Obama and Putin highlighted in their August 10-11 remarks: what does it mean for a nation to be exceptional? Recognizing that it is always dangerous to think of oneself as exceptional, and that "exceptional" can refer to both good and bad behavior, it could still prove to be a useful endeavor in terms of relating it to the moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice. This would hopefully get us into a conversation about basic values, goals, and priorities that would provide a common ground for understanding and working together.
I can think of a number of important goals for our side of the picture: free health care, free education through university, a living wage, women's equality, adequate housing, caring for our earthly habitat, empathetic concern for one's fellow humans, broadly inclusive voting rights, and a robust democratic political structure where wealth no longer decides representation or agenda. And this doesn't even get into the role that exceptional nations might have in a world where so many people are poor, hungry, homeless, sick, in need of help and hope.
What would you put on your list?