Cameras panning over the bodies of women and children, frozen in death where they walked, played, or slept in homes and on the street: Such was the scene in March 1988 after Saddam Hussein ordered a chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja.
Commemorating the 25th anniversary of that atrocity, the White House issued a statement.
"We continue our efforts to prevent future atrocities, and help ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are held accountable," the statement read.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has just thrown down the gauntlet and put the United States to the test. The suspected chemical attack on the eastern outskirts of Damascus came a year to the day after President Obama declared, "A red line for us is (when) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus."
For rogue regimes, red lines not implemented are essentially green lights. The first reports that Syria was preparing to use its chemical weapons arose this past December. There was no reaction. Three months later, both regime and opposition groups accused each other of launching chemical attacks. Again, there was no consequence.
UN investigators in June said there were "reasonable grounds" to believe that both sides had used chemicals. If it was a mitigating factor, the targets were more tactical than vengeful: seeking to clear out enemy positions. In effect, the Syrian Army was rehashing World War I, playing the part of the Germans who introduced the world to the modern chemical horror when they unleashed a chlorine cloud over allied trenches in Belgium. This week's attack in Syria, however, was different: The target was a civilian area and the motive was not to target rebels but simply to terrorize and kill.
At issue now is not simply justice in Syria, but the threshold to the use of chemical weapons. If Assad concludes the worst he faces is stern tweets by U.S. officials like Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, then he might easily decide to make chemical weapons strikes the norm rather than the exception. So too might North Korea's Kim Jong Un or Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan should peace talks with Turkey's Kurds breakdown. And if the world is silent when Assad allegedly drops chemicals on sleeping Syrians, what might stop him from repeating the same strategy on sleeping Israelis, Lebanese or Jordanians?
The UN has demanded that Syria allow its inspectors — staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus (whatever the UN's faults, they achieve maximum luxury with donor money) — access to the site of the attack, just a dozen miles away in order to collect definitive proof. Diplomats seeking definitive proof are like politicians promising to consider: Both presage inaction. For intelligence analysts, no amount of information is definitive enough. After Halabja, it took months if not years for the United States to find definitive proof that Saddam was responsible.
While governments debate the proper response to the Syria attack, they miss a fundamental question: Why should Syrian use of chemical weapons have been the red line rather than the regime's possession? The West has known about Syria's possession of chemical weapons for decades. Regardless of who ordered the apparent sarin attack, the West can no longer rest assured that rogues who acquire unconventional weapons will not one day use them. While the 2003 Iraq War may have made preemption and unilateralism dirty words in Washington, perhaps it is time to revisit the 2002 U.S. National Security Strategy, which declared, "There are few greater threats than a terrorist attack with WMD. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively." Diplomats may also want to reconsider the moral value of the United Nations which increasingly appears impotent in the face of grave and growing threats.
The Syrian crisis might also inform policy toward Iran. Even if Obama places his faith in a supposed fatwa issued by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei forbidding the use of nuclear weapons (mysteriously, no such declaration actually exists in Khamenei's collection of fatwas), any future Iranian leader can conclude differently; the risk is simply too great to ponder.
If one lesson can be learned from the Syrian tragedy, it is that the time to act is before rogues can equip themselves with weapons beyond the pale; not after.