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Moral Obscenity, Global Red Line

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
August 28, 2013
Folha de Sao Paulo

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Originally published in Portuguese on Folha de Sao Paulo:

While Obama meets with his national security team, Americans—well—a few in elite foreign policy circles—are also debating how the White House should respond to the Assad regime's chemical attacks. There are no strategically satisfying answers. I'm no fan of military interventions and I share the skepticism in Brazil and Latin America over the notion that Washington has some God-given right to regime change. But reading about and looking at the gruesome effects of last week's chemical attacks has forced me to put aside my visceral reticence about Washington's often far too reflexive use of force.

The most cynical argument about how to respond suggests that the West should do nothing, because death by chemical weapons is the same as death by conventional weapons. As one author put it, "dead is dead." Then there's a more coldly analytic conclusion, that stalemate in Syria is the best outcome for U.S. interests: avoid steps that would tip the balance toward either radical islamist opposition forces or toward Assad. At the other extreme, some argue that a full-scale intervention—ground, air, support for rebel forces, with or without international legal justification, is the only way to show Iran and its neighborhood that Washington is a credible adversary should Tehran definitively cross the nuclear weapons threshold. And in between, we hear calls for limited combinations of targeted missile strikes, no-fly zones, training, weapons, even as a consensus seems to have formed in Washington and internationally that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.

And here's where the administration seems to be moving: hitting Assad hard while avoiding an escalation of America involvement; making a clear statement in defense of the global norm against the use of chemical weapons; isolating the Russians and their recalcitrant defense of Assad; all while making a major push on the diplomatic-political-humanitarian side of the equation.

An ad-hoc coalition—Germany, France, the UK, Turkey, and maybe the Arab League, which now concurs that Assad, not the rebels, is indeed responsible for the chemical attack—is now willing to bypass the Security Council and Russia's veto.

Some, but not all Latin American governments have condemned the use of chemical weapons and called on Syria to allow access for UN weapons inspectors. Guatemala and Argentina, both with rotating seats on the Security Council, have a history of atrocities by their own governments against civilians, as well as a deeply held conviction against military intervention. Brazil can still take a leadership role by offering its significant experience in humanitarian assistance—for refugees and civilians--even as it insists on preserving the path to a political-diplomatic outcome. This route might not perfectly fit the parameters of "responsibility while protecting," but it will place Brazil on the right side of history.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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