Dictators are murderers. Some of them, like Robert Mugabe or Aleksandr Lukashenko, are garden-variety thugs, racists, or sociopaths; some, like Mao Zedong or Kim Jong Il, are insane perverts; and some of them, like former Soviet leaders Brezhnev and Khrushchev, are just bureaucrats whose souls are not even well-formed enough to qualify as “evil.” Some, too, are purely monsters, like Hitler or Pol Pot; those rarely come around, thank God.
And sometimes, if we’re lucky, they’re also idiots.
Bashar Assad, the Baby Doc Duvalier of the Desert, has managed to get something close to 17,000 people killed in a civil war against his regime. That, in itself, should be enough for the international community to intervene. But the Russians and the Chinese — those unfailing beacons of moral virtue in our dark, dark universe — have assiduously defended Baby Bashar’s rights to kill and maim to stay in power.
Moscow and Beijing probably would have been able to play out that game a lot longer were it not for the fact that their boy Assad is, in fact, an idiot.
The Syrian regime’s threat to use chemical weapons has pushed this crisis into a new arena. Up until now, the Russians and the Chinese have been clinging to the tattered, musty shreds of the Westphalian order, defending the now outdated idea that regimes must be left alone to murder and strangle their own people, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, in peace and quiet.
This is a popular line of argument for authoritarian regimes, since it’s instant inoculation against any kind of outside interference. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” the saying goes, and while that makes for great cover for a weekend of hookers, booze, and inappropriate tattoos, it no longer suffices for regimes intent on massacring their own people.
Still, Assad was getting away with it. But the threat to use chemicals has now eliminated any pretense that the Syrian war is a purely internal matter. (The Russians have “chided” them for this threat. Golf clap.) The Syrians, apparently, are actually moving their weapons, according to The Atlantic Wire, where Adam Martin, with admirable understatement, has called it “a bad idea.”
If the threat to use weapons of mass destruction (or in this case, more accurately, weapons of mass death) doesn’t qualify as a threatened crime against humanity — or at the least, a nothing-but-net Chapter VII Security Council issue — nothing does.
Assad is not exactly a Nobel Prize winning genius. Coincidentally, however, the American President does have one of those, and Assad has stupidly handed him and NATO exactly the threat they need to start eroding the Syrian armed forces and the Damascus regime, layer by layer. This no longer need be debated either as a humanitarian intervention (which it would be), or support for democracy (which it may or may not be, in the long run).
Instead, the United States should now lead an international effort to defang a rogue regime that has openly threatened the use of WMD against its neighbors. Maybe Iraq’s WMD weren’t the “slam-dunk” that George Tenet ineptly claimed, but this time, in Syria, there can be no mistake: the weapons exist and their use has been threatened.
When the dictator of a brutal regime says he will use chems, the least we can do is pay him the courtesy of taking him seriously — and then taking him out of power.