Where’s Waldo?

Bill Neinast


Where’s Waldo?  That children’s game is an apt description of President Obama’s foreign policy.

The President’s current dithering over what to do about the use of a weapon of mass destruction in Syria has diplomats, both friend and foe, scratching their heads.  

Will he?  Won’t he?  What?  When?  Those are the questions among our allies.  They are also the source of jokes among our enemies.

Basically, the questions and ridicule are about whether Obama knows what he is talking about and whether he is a man of his word. Put another way, what is this stuff about international law and the use of chemical weapons?

The confusion and scratching of heads is understandable.  First, Obama announced last year that, “If Syria deployed chemical weapons against its own people, it would have crossed a threshold with the White House.”  

This was generally referred to as Obama drawing a red line in the sand.  As Senator McCain observed, however, the line was drawn with disappearing ink because poison gas was used in Syria the day after the line was drawn and Obama did nothing.

When the red line was not enforced, the Assad regime concluded that Obama was all bark and no bite.  Thinking it could act with impunity, the regime unleashed a more horrific gas attack on its own people last week.

There was only bluster after the first use of gas.  In similar fashion the airwaves were now clogged with Secretary of State John Kerry and other Obama spokespersons pontificating about this serious breach of international law and the necessity for the U.S. to take punitive or corrective action.

None of the calls for action explained the applicable law.  

Using chemical weapons has been prohibited for a long time. The first prohibition was in the Franco-Prussian Treaty of 1675.  Since then, there have been numerous attempts to ban the use of weapons like sarin gas.

The treaty most often cited is the Geneva Protocol of 1925, but the most recent and current treaty is the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction (otherwise known as the Chemical Weapons Convention or CWC).   The convention became effective in April, 1997, after 87 nations signed on.  

Today, 184 so called States Parties adhere to the Convention.  The U.S. is among those 184; Syria is not.

One constant among all these treaties and conventions is that none established a punishment or enforcement mechanism for a breach of the prohibitions. The CWC establishes the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons based in the Hague, Holland.  This organization’s function, however, is only to “investigate” States Parties’ destruction of their chemical weapons.

The absence of an enforcement procedure presents a conundrum.  How is a violation to be corrected or punished and who is responsible for the corrective action?

Dreamers back in the 40’s were sure this would be a simple question to answer.  They had just created the United Nations to settle all disputes among nations and  to keep the world free of war for all time.

As those good intentions turned out to be a pipe dream, keeping nations at peace has turned into a crap shoot.

The U.S. voluntarily took on the role of being sheriff of the world because for many years it was the only country capable of being the peace keeper.  Four years ago, however, President Obama made his world tour to promise all that we were no longer the bully of the world.  We were just going to be good old lovable Uncle Sam.

Why he decided last year that we were going to be the enforcer again is anyone’s guess.  Now he has backed himself and the country into a corner and is begging our allies and the Congress to come and give him a hand.

Great Britain said, “No!” and France said, “Maybe.”  Everyone else seems to be saying, “Hey, this isn’t our problem.  You take care of it as you said you would.”

That lack of support may be due to a belief that there is no legal response for anyone outside Syria.  The only weak excuse is to take a reprisal.

Rule 145 of he International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes the use of reprisals as “a traditional method of enforcement of international humanitarian law.”  The rule, however, recognizes stringent limits on how and when reprisals may be used and notes that reprisals frequently result in a round of reprisals answering reprisals.

One requirement of a reprisal is that it be a timely response so that the offending country will know that the action is a reaction to the illegal act.  

The time for a timely response to Assad’s violation of the CWC is long past. The bluster from the White House should tell Assad why we are committing illegal acts of war within the borders of his country, but it is not the notice contemplated by traditional international law.

So here’s the perspective.

President Obama is in a box.  He is in a box that he built with his own mouth.

Assad has killed some of his people with a prohibited weapon.  He has killed and is killing a lot more with conventional weapons.  Some of those dying from bullets  or shrapnel may suffer more and longer than those asphyxiated.  

So why is the President responding only to the use of gas?  If he finally gets around to enforcing his red line, will this prompt Syria, Iran, and others to respond with reprisals directed at Israel or other U.S. interests and allies in the region?

Just something to think about harder than Obama has done.


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