Cliff May

It’s not just President Obama’s “red line” that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has crossed. Civilized people have long set limits on armed conflicts. Using chemical weapons — that’s been a war crime since 1925. Targeting innocent women and children — that’s been taboo since at least the Middle Ages. Are we now giving up these efforts, saying what the hell, boys will be boys, barbarians will be barbarians, and it’s none of our business anyway?

That’s not an unreasonable interpretation of what the British Parliament said last week. A majority voted not to support — not even in principle — a military strike against the Assad regime as condign punishment for its use of chemical weapons, gassing residential neighborhoods, and murdering babies, girls, boys, old men, and women by the hundreds. The Brits now join U.N. Security Council members Russia and China — leading members of the so-called international community — in favoring cost-free state terrorism. That’s tantamount to licensing it. The rulers of Iran and North Korea are among those taking notice.

President Obama, by contrast, says he wants to hold Assad accountable. “We cannot turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus,” he said Saturday. He has asked Congress to authorize him to take military action — something he did not request prior to intervening in Libya.

Should Congress refuse, it will confirm an ominous trend. At the conclusion of World War II, the West said “never again” to genocide. Yet genocides have been carried out in Cambodia, Rwanda (over which President Clinton later apologized on behalf of the “international community”), and Darfur.

There also was Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Al Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds, and the gassing of thousands of Kurdish civilians in Halabja. I would argue that it was a mistake not to hold Saddam accountable at the time, the late 1980s. Today, however, many people believe it was wrong ever to hold Saddam accountable for anything.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. No one in Tehran has paid a price for the assassination of four Iranian Kurds in Berlin in 1992, for the AMIA bombing in Argentina two years later, for the failed plots to blow up jet-fuel supply tanks and pipelines at JFK airport in New York in 2007, or to bomb a restaurant in Washington, D.C., in 2011.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.