Since the U.S. has now taken the much-traveled road of WMD inspections as the path forward for ridding Syria of its chemical weapons arsenal, I am reminded of a lecture I attended many years ago given by an American scientist who’d served on one of the U.N. teams in Iraq. We hadn’t invaded yet, but there were rumblings, and the scientist made it clear he wasn’t a fan of the idea. I remember also his sympathy for Iraqi scientists who’d been recruited for Iraq’s WMD program with a steady government salary and the enticing benefits package of “staying alive.”
I don’t remember the lecturer’s name or if he ever made clear his reasoning for opposing invasion, but he clearly was not basing his objection on the “success” of the inspection program. His experiences as an inspector were tales of obstruction, obfuscation and gallows humor. The “surprise” visits were escorted, the escorts often delayed, and by the time a team arrived, the inspection site was often abandoned and buried under tons of fresh concrete. Aw gee, you wanted soil samples? Who knew?
At one particular compound there was a water tower, and an inspector told the Iraqi standing near it that he needed to get a water sample. Reluctantly, he was allowed to ascend — but it wasn’t the tank he was after – it was the altitude. From his higher vantage point the inspector caught sight of what he was really looking for: a long caravan of trucks trailing away into the distance, which he photographed as surreptitiously as possible. In the shell game of hide and seek, he’d found something. The next morning he learned that the man who had allowed him to climb up the tower had been shot.
Fast forward to the current agreement on Syria, which proposes to find chemical weapons which have already been dispersed, says our Secretary of State, to at least 45 locations. “They have moved them, and we know they have moved them,” Kerry said. “We’ve seen them. We’ve watched this.” (Btw — Isn’t that the sort of thing the administration lambasted Snowden for, that is, telling our enemy what our capabilities are? Or is Kerry just bluffing again, using the “language of diplomacy”?) At any rate, who will take him seriously now? His talk of an “unbelievably small” strike, along with Pres. Obama’s “shot across the bow” was somewhat less scary than the French soldier in Monty Python and the Holy Grail — these were “I-Fart-in-Your-General-Direction” threats, on Zoloft.
Given that the players in Syria are a dictator; an old KGB hand; an ongoing civil war featuring guest jihadists; and the U.N., which makes up for its bureaucratic incompetence by being endemically corrupt — not to mention that do-it-yourselfer bad guys with a few gallons of Sarin need only garage-shop tools to make an efficient dispersal unit – and the stage is set for an absurdist reprise of the Iraq WMD inspections, but in an even more deadly setting.
The new agreement is a successful pivot for our president only in that his schizophrenic dithering has now been outsourced to an international body which specializes in dithering. People of good will and ill will alike in Syria will continue to be killed, if not from weapons of mass destruction, then from the usual mass application of weapons for more individualized destruction.
I’ve never been in favor of intervening militarily, at least not since it became clear that the replacements might be as vicious as Assad, if not more so. And while I may not be hip to the nuances of diplomatic bartering, making idle threats about consequences – i.e., making it clear that your word is meaningless — is not generally a very efficient way to pressure bad guys into not doing bad things. Heck, it’s not even a good way to get a nice kid to clean his room.
But if the deal struck in these whirlwind negotiations “holds,” the leader of the world’s biggest super power can go back to reading stern talk off his teleprompters, lamenting that his hands are tied, and doing what he seems to have the most enthusiasm for: attacking Republicans. My guess is that the Red Line will be pink for the rest of his term.