We cannot solve the problems of today by belatedly acting on the problems of yesterday. Yet a key pillar of John Kerry's justification for a punitive strike against the Assad regime is that the world stood by in the past when other atrocities were committed in previous conflicts.
"We need to hear an appropriate outcry as we think back on those moments of history when large numbers of people have been killed because the world was silent," he said today when meeting British foreign secretary William Hague. "The Holocaust, Rwanda, other moments, are lessons to all of us today."
I am afraid history is rarely a good argument for the USA, or for Britain and other former colonial powers. History reveals a very dirty business when it comes to support for nasty regimes. The USA at best looked the other way and at the worst supported the use of chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein in the war with Iran in the 1980s. I suppose this must have been one of the 'other moments' in history referred to by John Kerry.
Without further sanction by the UN security council a punitive strike would not be legal. Only a strike that could demonstratively protect civilians would be legal. As far as I understand it there is no legal sanction for punitive action. But I confess I am no expert in international law. What I can say, however, is that the ethics of punitive action is dubious.
John Kerry is right when he says that "the end of the conflict in Syria requires a political solution." It would be better if the Obama administration worked to that end. It is difficult to see how a punitive military strike against Assad facilitates a political solution. If it weakens the Assad regime, the opposition forces would be unlikely to want a negotiated settlement. No, it is a very contradictory position for the Obama administration to hold.
The USA has now given the Assad regime just one week to hand over all its chemical weapons. Why
just one week? It is an empty gesture as John Kerry himself says; Assad will not comply with such a demand.
Russia today also called on Syria to put its arsenal of chemical weapons under international control for destruction. It is clear John Kerry's ultimatum was made with some degree of cynicism and the US administration has been caught on the hop by Russia's move. Nonetheless, should Syria comply with Russia's request then this clearly would be a way forward to avoid a military intervention.