By chance, it appears that the US Congress will decide on or around Sept. 11 whether to endorse President Barack Obama’s proposal to respond militarily to the Syrian government’s use of poison gas against civilians. The shadow of two previous events that took place on Sept. 11 looms over the outcome -— indeed, over the fact that the question is even being considered at all.
Long before Sept. 11, 2001, became a day of infamy in the US, it acquired similar significance in Chile, where 40 years ago, on Sept. 11, 1973, the armed forces, led by General Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the country’s democratically elected government. More than any other event of our era, that violent coup was responsible for launching both the contemporary global movement for human rights and the US movement to promote human rights internationally.
In part, this reflected the new regime’s cruelty. More than three thousand people were murdered or “disappeared” during Pinochet’s rule, thousands more were tortured by his forces, and tens of thousands were forcibly exiled. To an even greater extent, however, the motivation that spurred the human-rights movement was revulsion worldwide, including in the US, against US aid to Pinochet’s forces, a policy directed by then-US president Richard Nixon and then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
In the US, members of Congress turned the coup into a platform for efforts to promote human rights. They condemned developments in Chile, held hearings about the importance of promoting human rights, and adopted legislation — over then-US president Gerald Ford’s veto — requiring that human-rights standards guide US foreign policy.
A slightly revised version of that legislation remains in force. Obama’s proclamation that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” — and his implicit threat to use force if that line were crossed — reflects the commitment that the US has made during the past four decades to promote human rights worldwide.
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, are also playing a crucial role in deciding the question of a punitive strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. One consequence of the terrorist attacks 12 years ago is that Americans and others in the West became aware that developments in the Middle East could affect their own safety and security.
Initially, the attacks unleashed a strong desire to retaliate, which later gave way to caution about intervention, owing to unforeseen consequences. In the UK, continuing intense resentment over the deceptions that led to the country’s engagement in the Iraq war seems to be the main reason for Parliament’s refusal to back a strike against Syria. Wariness of another Middle East war has also underpinned Obama’s unwillingness to go beyond a one-time punitive strike on Syria — with some in Congress opposed to even that.
Though Congress must guard against repeating its disastrous mistake in 2003, when it supported the war in Iraq, the commitment to promote human rights that the US made following Sept. 11, 1973, seems a more appropriate standard for weighing Obama’s proposal for US military action in Syria. Maintaining the international prohibition on the use of chemical weapons is an urgent concern.
The Assad regime’s culpability for using these weapons is not in doubt. If the US Congress deals with Obama’s proposal responsibly, and does not yield to those motivated by a partisan desire to embarrass him at every turn, it will enhance its own claim to recapture the constitutional power to authorize military conflict — a power that has been disregarded more often than not in the past half-century. A critical part of its role must be to consider with care the limits that should be placed on a punitive strike.
The war in Iraq was misconceived from the start, because it was an attempt to avenge the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by invading and occupying a country that had no part in them. Obama’s proposal to strike Syria, by contrast, is an attempt to enforce an important human-rights norm by directly punishing — through means that do not involve invasion and occupation — those who committed a gross violation. It restores human rights to the central place in US foreign policy set forth after Sept. 11, 1973.
Aryeh Neier is president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch.
Copyright: Project Syndicate