When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turned poison gas against the rebels and their families, everyone could agree that even in a civil war -- where passions burn hottest -- that's inhumane, and it's not forgivable.
The harsh and mechanical reporting of war rarely invites poetry to make a correspondent's points, but a reader with a yearning for a more penetrating reality turns to the poignant verse of Wilfred Owen, the young British poet who was called to duty when the poisonous mist of chlorine gas settled over the trenches in the Great War of 1914-1918. The poet who dreamed of joining bards and birds "singing of summer scything" turned the poetic power of observation to describe a victim on the front, fumbling with helmet and mask, too late to protect himself from the poison that leaves him "guttering, choking, drowning." We see the victim's white eyes wilt on his face, like a "devil's sick of sin" and listen to "the gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs."
Tanks and machineguns killed many more soldiers in the Great War than gas, but the poison could linger when it did not kill, terrifying and demoralizing both the soldier on the front and the public back home. It was such an inhumane way to kill that its use led to the Geneva Protocols that outlawed chemical warfare in 1925.
Although powerful images of "ordinary" battlefield and civilian deaths have been blamed on both government and rebels in Syria, there's less talk about the grim inhumanity of the weapons than identifying a political rationale for our own self-interest. The fighting simply didn't feel up close and personal when President Obama argued against getting "mired" in such a grim and difficult dilemma. A year has passed since he drew a blood-red line that would be the outer limits of American patience and then declined to follow through when Assad looked at the red and saw it as green.
Photographs of the dead, of women, children and whole families, shouldn't have been necessary to get President Obama's full attention. He could have helped the rebels when they were winning. But the use of chemical weapons is a game-changer, even for a president who leads from behind. The appeal to good will and fair play hasn't worked. He neither "reset" relations with Russia nor did he establish a "new beginning with Muslims around the world," as he promised in Cairo in 2009.
His approach in the Middle East was simple, even elegant, says Walter Russell Mead in a trenchant analysis in The Wall Street Journal. The president's policy was well-intentioned, carefully crafted, consistently pursued, and a colossal failure. "The U.S would work with moderate Islamist groups like Turkey's AK Party and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to make the Middle East more democratic," he argues. "This would kill three birds with one stone."
This would narrow the gap between the "moderate middle" of the Muslim world (such as it might be) and demonstrate how peaceful, moderate parties can achieve results and isolate terrorists and radicals. The democratic gains that would be achieved would improve economic and social conditions to the point of reducing the appeal of fanaticism that drives people into terrorist camps. It seemed so simple.
The clarity of hindsight exposes many errors in the president's thinking about the world and America's place in it, but no error is so clear now as his refusal to aid the Syrian rebels before their ranks were swollen with radicals and terrorists nobody can trust. The cost in human life from chemical warfare rather than politics inevitably drives us toward getting an involved, unhappy result. Though that may be, many of the rebels are neither friendly nor inclined to learn democracy. The president in failing to win what once appeared to be an easy victory over a dictator backed by Russia and Iran now looks weak and uncertain. President Vladimir Putin in Russia and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran are entitled, from the evidence the president himself furnished, to think Obama is dithering, indecisive and irresolute. We can expect them to act accordingly.
But if an Assad victory would be awful, a rebel triumph might eventually be worse. In the sixth year of his presidential odyssey, Obama is poised to sail through Scylla and Charybdis, anarchy and despotism. Rough seas lie ahead.