Saturday, September 07, 2013


A week ago Friday, President Obama led the way when he told reporters

It's important for us to recognize that when over 1,000 people are killed, including hundreds of innocent children, through the use of a weapon that 98 or 99 percent of humanity says should not be used even in war, and there is no action, then we're sending a signal that that international norm doesn't mean much... And that is a danger to our national security.

Interviewed (transcript, here) by Chris Hayes Thursday, Secretary of State Kerry on three occasions went George Wendt on us:

Now, that’s not the calculation of what we’re — of what the president has proposed in the military strike he is seeking to get authorization for.

That is specifically to enforce the international norm, almost a century old now, that came out of World War II — out of the horrors of World War I — whereby 189 nations have signed an agreement that we will not use chemical weapons in warfare.

And — and Bashar Al-Assad joins with Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein as being somebody who has crossed that line.

We are trying to enforce the international norm against that behavior and that’s all that this military strike seeks to do...

Our effort is to — is to preserve this international norm regarding the — the — the prohibition on the use of these terrible weapons. 

But if we don’t do this, Assad will have the message that he can use these weapons with impunity.  We will have turned our back on the next batch of children, on the next batch of parents.  We will have turned our back on the international norm, we will have lost credibility in the world and I guarantee you...

And if you haven't heard enough about norms, Kerry wanted to make it "crystal clear":

We have made it crystal clear to them.  We make it crystal clear now in every statement that we have made, this action has nothing to do with engaging directly in Syria’s civil war on one side or the other.  It has to do with enforcing a norm of international behavior that has protected people against chemical weapons.  And it is one of the things — chemical, biological, nuclear warfare, we have decided as a world we are going to protect people against those weapons.

After something like 100,000 Syrians have been killed by the Assad regime in Syria's civil war, the Obama Administration is up in arms about chemical weapons.    But it's no coincidence that President Obama is drawing a "red line" on chemical weapons, and only on chemical weapons.

There may be more than one "international norm."  John Reed and Noah Shachtman recently reported in

Cluster bombs are banned by 83 nations. The world recoiled in horror when it learned that Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad's forces have killed children with such weapons.

But that isn't stopping the U.S. military from selling $640 million worth of American-made cluster bombs to Saudi Arabia, despite the near-universal revulsion at such weapons, and despite the fact that relations between the two countries haven't been entirely copacetic of late.

Cluster bombs spit out dozens, even hundreds, of micro-munitions in order cover a wide area with death and destruction. These weapons are used for killing large groups of people, destroying thinly-skinned vehicles and dispensing landmines or poison gas. Some of the Soviet-made incendiary cluster bombs used by Assad's forces during Syria's civil war are even designed to light buildings on fire and then explode after sitting on the ground for a while -- thereby killing anyone who gets close enough to try to extinguish the flames.

The irony of the U.S. selling one authoritarian Middle East country 1,300 cluster bombs while criticising the use of indiscriminate weapons by another isn't lost on the Cluster Munition Coalition, an international group dedicated to ending the use of such weapons.

"This transfer announcement comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have joined international condemnations of Syria's cluster bomb use," said Sarah Blakemore, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition, in a statement about the sale.

These weapons are loathed because in addition to killing enemy combatants, their fairly indiscriminate nature means they can kill plenty of civilians. And not just in the heat of battle. The little ball-shaped bomblets dispersed by cluster munitions don't always detonate on first impact. Often, they will just sit there on the ground until someone, often a child, picks them up and causes them to explode.

So far, 112 countries have signed an international treaty banning cluster bombs, with 83 ratifying it. Guess who isn't part of that club? China, Russia, most for the former USSR, Syria... and the United States, which is selling thousands Textron-made cluster bombs to the Saudis between now and 2015.

Despite the fact that the U.S. State Department says it "shares in the international concern about the humanitarian impact of all munitions, including cluster munitions" it's in no hurry to sign the ban. Foggy Bottom insists that "their elimination from U.S. stockpiles would put the lives of its soldiers and those of its coalition partners at risk."

Perhaps, then, President Obama could order an air strike against Riyadh, vowing that no violation of an international norm can go unpunished lest it endanger our national security.  But then he might also have to take seriously one of those other "international norms," the one prohibiting torture pursuant to the Geneva Convention and the Convention Against Torture.   He could start by prosecuting Bush Administration officials involved in approval of the euphemistically termed "enhanced interrogation techniques," but he would be breaking his own belief in "looking forward, not backwards."  (It might, though, bolster that "credibility" Kerry speaks of.)

Fortunately, there is no international norm against being a brazen hypocrite.

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