During the Haiti coup of the early 1990s, the lines were unusually clear. On one side were the junta leaders and their supporters. There were the people who backed deposed president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And then there were those who only cared for stability and ongoing profits.
It was also clear to many reporters and aid workers that the coup leaders would do almost anything to avoid pushing the United States to intervene. Meanwhile, the Aristide supporters were desperate to have the U.S. forces come in, take out the coup leaders and restore the elected president.
Thus arose a curious situation. Journalists had little legitimate fear of being kidnapped or targeted by the junta, understanding that if a high profile journalist or aid worker was killed it would push the reluctant Clinton administration to act. That was the last thing the junta leaders wanted, and they understood that dynamic quite well. However, there was a genuine concern that the other side would do just that – target a high-profile American – but make it look like it was the act of the junta. The end result would be what they wanted – a U.S. intervention – even if the price was killing a U.S. journalist.
That Alice in Wonderland equation, thankfully, never unfurled. Yet it pops back into mind when one looks at reports of chemical weapons use in Syria, and more broadly, what all the various players and observers want. As I challenge my students to ask, what are the motives? Then, what do you do to achieve your goal?
There seems to be little uncertainty that some form of poisonous gas was used in Syria. So that leaves us with the motive and goal equation.
A nation and world already suckered into Iraq by proof of weapons that did not exist is rightfully skeptical. Many others ask, what is the difference of some persons killed by gas while hundreds of thousands others are killed by bullets with no intervention? These are fair points for discussion.
Why would Syrian dictator Bashar Assad do something that could trigger a U.S. military action? It's illogical on the surface. Yet absolute rulers at all levels tend to think the normal rules do not apply to them.
Why did the Obama administration announce what it would and would not do instead of keeping Assad guessing? The warning was issued months ago – was that not enough time to develop a plan that would have impact and still help the White House have the illusion of not trying to tip the scale? (Think the Israeli raid on the Entebbe airport in 1976.)
Who benefits from using poison gas, and who benefits from a U.S. attack? Who benefits if there is no U.S. attack?
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the objective is "to hold the Assad regime accountable, degrade its ability to carry out these kinds of attacks, and deter the regime from further use of chemical weapons." Will this action do that? So far, no one has really shown or said how.
Those are the practical questions. Then there are the moral ones. Secretary of State John Kerry has vividly made that case, even while other answers are less clear.
Last week Kerry called the attack a "crime against conscience," adding that the U.S. had a moral obligation to punish Syria for using chemical weapons while painting a ghastly portrait of twitching bodies, victims foaming at the mouth and row upon row of children gassed to death.
This week, the same. It is "a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw," Kerry said. "History holds nothing but infamy for those criminals, and I think you know that history also holds very little sympathy for their enablers."
One of the grimmest of my many grim memories was seeing the bloated bleached bodies of dead Rwandans bobbing in the river as we crossed a bridge in Rwanda after that slaughter. No one helped. The world cannot stop all of it, but it should try when they can. Man is too cruel to let go unchecked.
As Marisa Fox recently wrote, silence is not golden.
U.S. and world history is full of examples of intervention and non-intervention, depending on the mood and the moment. Rwanda is a glaring example of non-intervention, although, again, what and how to intervene was never even broached. The U.S. failure to bomb rail lines transporting Jews to their deaths in Nazi Germany is another example. And each day, in places like Zimbabwe, despots enact cruelty on their people.
Should you limit yourself to just a kind of incremental retaliation that doesn't serve any strategic purpose? Does that make the bully worse? After all, it is war. There has to be a strategic motivation behind the moral one.
In the class I teach, we talk of someone being either "wiley" or a "jagoff," using their head in a times of emotional pulls and challenge. The president is at one of those checkpoints in life; they are always tricky and dangerous. Wiley is the recommendation.
Tom Squitieri is a college professor and award-winning foreign correspondent. He also writes for the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow him on Twitter @TomSquitieri.