Chemical weapons are responsible for only about one percent of the deaths in the Syrian civil war. To propose military intervention on account of 1,429 deaths, among more than 100,000 victims of conventional weapons, is sheer hypocrisy - or worse, proof that the US has hidden intentions in the region. If all deaths are equal, what does it matter how you cause them?
This is an oft-repeated argument of late. But it's a wrongheaded one. All lives have the same value, but the political and legal consequences of the use of chemical weapons have to be different. The international community has placed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in a special class, as weapons of mass destruction, under a special statute, regulating their possession and proliferation and prohibiting their use. This expresses a conviction that, although war appears to be intrinsic to the human condition, there should be limits to it.
It is true that this approach, of trying to humanize what is essentially inhuman, is fraught with contradiction and paradox. Remember, for example, that most of the 800,000 victims of the genocide in Rwanda were hacked to death with machetes imported from China, while the international community looked on and did nothing. Likewise, apart from "strategic" nuclear bombs capable of destroying whole cities and killing millions, there are states that possess stocks of "tactical" nuclear weapons, whose destructive power is only of a slightly higher order than that of conventional weapons.
Military intervention is justified not only retrospectively, to punish their use, but prospectively
Be that as it may, the international community has classified conflict not merely in terms of the number of deaths, but has rightly drawn a red line against the use of weapons of mass destruction. To trivialize the use of chemical weapons not only degrades us morally; precisely because we know there are regimes prepared to use them, it also opens up intolerable prospects for the future. In the case of Syria, as we await the final report from the UN inspectors, the mass of evidence brought forward by the US, France and Germany is more than sufficient to conclude that they have, in fact, been used. To render this use more costly is not only justified, but necessary.
Military intervention is justified not only retrospectively, to punish their use, but prospectively, to ensure that Bashar al-Assad does not use them again, and thus, as a future warning to those who may think that the prohibition is only relative.
A different question is whether this intervention is feasible. From the legal standpoint, unfortunately, the UN Security Council is being held hostage by Putin; while in the practical sense, a military intervention at this time, if to be at all effective, would be very costly. Even so, we must remember that the objective of governing is not to please all and sundry, but to accept the responsibility of making difficult decisions, whose consequences cannot always be predicted. Amid the flood of criticism being poured on Obama (once again with the argument of his receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, as if Obama had not declared his belief in the use of force in certain circumstances), the fact that François Hollande has joined the fragile coalition and is prepared to face the political attrition this involves, speaks well of this president, whom so many had dismissed as a mere bureaucrat - gray, soft and opportunistic. The United Kingdom having disappeared from the scene, owing to David Cameron's careless handling of his party and of the Labour opposition, while Germany once again turns its back on any and all responsibility when things turn nasty, the figure of the French president stands as the single voice of a pathetically silent, impotent Europe. Obama and Hollande may be taking a mistaken course, but if so, we have to admit they are doing so for reasons of political and personal honesty.