It looks like the US and some allied countries, possibly France and the UK, are making preparations for limited military strikes against the infrastructure of the regime of Assad in Syria. No doubt this action will spark outrage among some, if not many, across the world.
The trigger for this action, of course, is the horrific indiscriminate chemical weapons attack against residents of what is frequently described as rebel strongholds in the suburbs of Damascus.
Conditioning the debate and interpretation of what will presumably be US lead military action are the ghosts of events past, of Halabja during the Iran-Iraq war, of Srebrenica in July 1995 at the end of the Bosnian war, of the PR use of Halabja by the Bush administration (10 years after the fact) to gin up the case for its invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The blunders of the Bush administration in Iraq have significantly crippled the moral legitimacy of the US to undertake any military action in Middle East (US drone attacks, ongoing in Yemen, have little international legitimacy though they enjoy support among most US citizens). Arguably, Syrian civilians are paying the price for this, in that there in no longer an ‘indispensable nation’ willing to lead an international coalition to advance a norm like “responsibility to protect.” Some, however, will argue that R2P was never more than a fig leaf for Great Powers pursuing narrow national interests in the garb of ‘humanitarianism’.
But there is now an older international norm at stake in Syria, one with echoes all the way back to the First World War. This involving the prohibition of chemical weapons, in war and most especially against civilians. As the horror videos from last week’s event make clear (and the power of visual documents like these to induce an affective geopolitics needs careful explication), this norm has now been breached. The event has ceased to be simply another round of brutality in the Syrian civil war. It has ‘jumped place’ and become an international outrage, a ‘moral obscenity’ in Secretary Kerry’s words. The issue is an existential one, his citation of his identity as a father underscoring this. For my own part, this aspect resonated profoundly. Watching those videos is deeply painful as a parent.
So does this leave us with a situation where the US, and morally sentient global citizens, have a justification for morally righteous violence against the presumed perpetrators? Is this affective geopolitical disposition equivalent to that deployed during the Bush years? These are important questions, it seems to me, but I am inclined to suggest that there is a defensible moral justification for the use of military force in this case and, second, that this is different from the affective geopolitics prevalent during the Bush 43 years which were much more unilateral and nationalistic. But these are early days in asking questions about these unfolding events.