World

Why Are Chemical Weapons Different?

Mustard gas artillery shells in storage at a U.S. government facility in Pueblo, Colorado.

The civil war in Syria came back into the news the other day, when our government warned Bashar al-Assad that should he use chemical weapons against rebels and the population that surrounds them, he will have crossed a "red line." The consequences of the red-line-crossing were left unspoken. Perhaps military action on the rebels' side? An indictment in the International Criminal Court? We don't know, but it'll be bad.

Dominic Tierney beat me to it, but this news raised something I've found troubling for a long time. If you order your own civilian population to be shot, burned to death, or cut to pieces with shrapnel, the international community will be very displeased. But if you order that population to be killed by means of poison gas, then that's much, much worse. But seldom do we ask why.

Taking Opposite Tacks on Iran and Syria

Viewed from the region, talk of war takes on a different hue.

(AP Photo/Idlib News Network ENN)

From the Gulf metropolis of Dubai, Iran is barely 90 miles across the water, less than the driving distance from New York to Philadelphia. On a clear day, the country’s coastline can be seen from the city’s skyscrapers; at night, diners in the city’s highest restaurant can look out across the Persian Gulf and see lights on the Iranian side. Ties of family, friendship, and business connect Iran with its Arab neighbors, but that proximity also focuses the minds of Arab leaders on the consequences of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon. Even now, Iran is often unnecessarily provocative: At the start of this year, it threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow strip of water between the United Arab Emirates, where Dubai is the largest city, and Iran, through which millions of barrels of oil are shipped daily. Iran also continues to occupy three islands that the UAE claims sovereignty over, and Gulf countries fear a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more belligerent.

The Gaza Cease-Fire: A Beginning, Not an End

Last week's successful negotiations will be a failure of leadership if they do not pave the way for an end to the occupation.

(Sipa via AP Images)

The political landscape of the Middle East has changed drastically over the past two years, but the successful negotiation of a cease-fire last week should have demonstrated that the support and active engagement of the United States is still essential if, in Secretary Hilary Clinton’s words, a “durable solution” is to be found.

As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has once again reasserted itself on the international agenda, it’s important to step back a bit and reaffirm that a durable solution not just to the current violence but to the conflict itself remains a key U.S. national-security interest. In the week leading up to Israel’s offensive, most of Washington had been consumed by the news of retired General David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director because of the revelation of an extramarital affair. Analysts and historians will of course continue to debate Petraeus’s legacy, but in light of the past week’s events, one particular episode in his career bears remembering.

Deterrence Can't Replace Diplomacy

Israel's offensive shows the limits of military intervention.

(Rex Features via AP Images)

As I write, and pray for a ceasefire, rockets continue to swarm out of Gaza; Israeli planes continue flock to strike the Hamas-ruled enclave.

This has been an unequal battle in at least two ways. The rockets are indeed a form of terrorism, tired as that word is: The men firing them want to kill random people for a political purpose. Only the technological wizardry of the Iron Dome anti-missile system has kept Israeli casualties low. Israeli pilots, in contrast, aim smart bombs at military targets. But if a bomb is misaimed or the target is inside a crowded neighborhood, the blast is stupid; it kills children as easily as Hamas fighters. Thus the toll rises among people whose only offense is living in Gaza.

Obama's Next Move in the Middle East

There are lots of possible courses of action that the president could take in his response to the fighting in Gaza, but which is the best?

(AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The fighting in Gaza over the past week tees up some difficult choices for the Obama administration. But not the choices you might think. The pundit-verse wants to argue—as it always does—about who is at fault, whose civilians are more innocent, whose targeting is more wicked. This is tapped-out domestic politics, and it is tiresome. More to the point, it does not help; it encourages a short-term, tunnel-vision response that will wind up back in the same place—which is to say more deaths, more escalation, another Cast Lead, and loss of credibility and ability to make tough decisions stick.

Israel's Airstrike Gamble

What—beyond temporarily reducing militants' long-range rocket capabilities—does the country hope to achieve by launching attacks in the Gaza Strip?

(AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The rocket that landed in the Mediterranean Sea south of Tel Aviv yesterday represents yet another troubling escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not since the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles fell on the city, has Tel Aviv has come under similar attack. There are reports of more rockets fired at Tel Aviv this morning, and the world waits to see whether the 160,000 Israeli reservists called up today means a ground invasion of Gaza similar to 2008-2009’s Operation Cast Lead.

Greece's Very Real Fiscal Cliff

The tired country's parliament continues to enact austerity measures to ensure Eurozone financial help keeps flowing, to the anger of many affected parties.

(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Last Wednesday night, I sat in the press stalls inside the main hall of Greece’s parliament watching a critical bill being debated. While Americans were still distracted by the results of their own election, Greece’s ruling coalition, made up of three parties that straddle the center, was struggling to pass new cuts and reforms necessary for continued financial help for the debt-ridden country. As the measure was attacked by deputies from SYRIZA, the hard-left official opposition, and the populist-right Independent Greeks, I heard yelling and commotion from inside the parliament building. My first thought was that the tens of thousands of protesters who had gathered outside in the pouring rain had broken through the lines of police and made it into the building.

Liberté, Égalité, Homosexualité

When it comes to marriage equality, the French are surprisingly behind the times.

(Flickr/Guillaume Paumier)

France exists in the American imagination mostly in caricatured form. On matters of sex, in particular, the French are thought of as being ahead of the curve, transcending the bounds of traditional morality—a perception shared by American progressives, who admire them for being liberated, and by conservatives, who consider them amoral libertines.

It may therefore come as a surprise that on matters of gay marriage and the full legal recognition of gay couples, France has lagged behind both the United States, where nine states recognize same-sex marriage, and a number of other European countries. But this is about to change: A few days ago, the French cabinet approved a draft bill on the legalization of gay marriage and adoption in accordance with the pre-election pledges of socialist president François Hollande. If passed, the bill, which is due for debate in parliament in late January, will make France the ninth country in Europe and the seventh in the European Union to recognize gay marriage.

Romney's Continent-Crossing Coattails

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Shimon Peres, just 89 years young, is under pressure "from politicians and ex-generals" to run again for prime minister of Israel against Benjamin Netanyahu, or so say unsourced news reports. Peres, in politics since the time of King David or at least of FDR, denies he'll give up his ceremonial post as Israel's president for another run. Ex-prime minister Ehud Olmert, according to other unreliable reports, awaits the outcome of the U.S. election before deciding whether he'll return to politics in a bid to unite Israel's fragmented center and left and save the country from Netanyahu.

Peeking In on Canada's Election

Last year, Canada's Liberals—the party of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, the party that held power for most of the 20th century—suffered a crushing electoral defeat. Its representation in the House of Commons was cut by more than half, and for the first time in its history, the Liberal Party fell to third place in the number of seats, behind Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives and the more leftist New Democratic Party (NDP). Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff immediately announced that he would step down, triggering a leadership campaign that officially begins this November. The early favorite is Trudeau's son Justin, but a number of other candidates have entered the race. We interviewed one of them, Alex Burton, a prosecutor and party activist from Vancouver, about his campaign to lead the Liberals, the differences between American and Canadian politics, and his views on his neighbors to the south.

Mitt Romney, Language Cop

Mitt Romney, saying things.

There were a number of strange moments in last night debate, the most substantively meaningful of which was almost certainly Mitt Romney's declaration that "when I’m president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out [of Afghanistan] by the end of 2014." For the last year, Romney has been criticizing Barack Obama for having precisely this position, saying that we can't tell the enemy when we're leaving and our departure has to be determined by events on the ground. In the foreign policy version of Moderate Mitt, that apparently is no longer operative. But the oddest thing Romney said had to be this: "I'd make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it."

As I've observed before, Romney's critique of Obama on foreign policy has always been primarily linguistic. He takes issue not with what the President has done, but what he has said. He apologizes for America! He didn't use the word "terror"! He isn't strong and resolute! But forced for the first time to actually have his foreign policy arguments probed and criticized, all of Romney's attacks on Obama fell away, and he ended up saying over and over that he agreed with Obama's policies.

So Romney's pledge about Ahmadinejad was perfectly in keeping with his language obsession

A Good Debate, But Will Voters Notice?

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Obama did very well in the foreign-policy debate, but it remains to be seen if his success will change the trajectory of the race, which has been trending toward Romney.

Several things about this debate were a surprise. The most surprising thing was the emergence of Mild Mitt. Romney sounded almost as if he were on downers. His campaign must have decided that he was coming across as too ferocious or two bellicose. But his performance tonight was underwhelming.

Obama, by contrast, took the debate to Romney right from the first exchange. He was almost too aggressive, calling the former Massachusetts governor on his inconsistencies and policy recommendations that would have backfired. “Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong,” the president said.

Obama's Total Knockout

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

(AP Photo/Pool-Win McNamee)

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama answer a question during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Florida.

"This Civil War, This Complicated Civil War"

A look at the ongoing conflict in Syria, and whether it's too late for a swift resolution to the growing tensions in the Middle East.

(AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

The conflict in Syria has escalated significantly in recent weeks. After months of mounting tension between Turkey and the Assad regime, the Turkish parliament took the step of authorizing cross-border military operations into Syria. Both sides have since exchanged artillery fire. As the political and military crisis deepens, The Prospect spoke with Steven Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about the nature of the conflict and the possibility of its resolution.

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