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red lines and change in the autumn air

September 4, 2013

A cool breeze woke me up this morning, reminding me of autumn’s imminence.  We’ve already had several hints that it would be coming soon to our neighbourhood; after a very dry July and early August, last month ended with 3+ inches of rain in four days.  The leaves on our maple trees have been falling for two weeks.

September has long felt like the start of the new year to me.  There’s real change in the air, especially if you have kids in school.  January 1st just seems like another winter day, but with more college football than usual.

I deeply fear that there will be even more than usual in the air this fall.  Obama’s escalation of “red-line” rhetoric since Labour Day reminds me of Dubya Bush’s Chief of Staff Andrew Card telling the New York Times that “you don’t introduce new products in August”, in reference to selling the Iraq War.

Tales of aluminum tubes, yellowcake and WMD’s promptly ensued.

I won’t question the sincerity of Obama’s apparent good intentions.  There’s no way to measure that.  But I do offer some context for all this.

In 1961 President Kennedy, reeling from some huge political setbacks like the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, wanted to “draw a line in the sand” to stop communism.  He told the Times that “we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place”.

Within two years, JFK had sent 16,000 U.S. troops to South Vietnam.  Eisenhower had dispatched 900 military “advisors”, starting in early 1955, but was wary of further involvement.  He likely would have increased commitment if England had agreed, but the U.K. wasn’t keen on it.  Both nations thus avoided the disastrous Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the abrupt end of French colonialism in Indochina.

The line this time is an ethereal little sucker.  The U.S. is ostensibly opposed to chemical weapons, yet it used approximately 500 MK-77 bombs in both Iraqi wars.  These devices contain 110 gallons of kerosene, benzene and white phosphorous.  They succeed the napalm bombs used in Vietnam, which were quite similar; but the Pentagon — ever mindful of the feelings of others — insists that the newer version is gentler on the environment.

The MK-77 was banned by a 1980 U.N. treaty.  The U.S. is a signatory of this accord, but it reserved the right to use incendiary devices against military targets in civilian areas if it’s determined that their use would cause fewer casualties and/or less collateral damage than conventional weapons.

I once watched corpsmen dig napalm out of a Vietnamese child with a spoon.  I can assure you that big bombs dropped from way up do not check I.D.’s.

Obama is swimming against the tide on this one.  None of the polls I’ve read show majority support in the U.S., and it’s much less among other Western nations, including France.  Although there is substantial evidence of the attack, it’s nowhere near settled that it was the Assad regime’s doing.  The casualty count that John Kerry often cites — 1429 dead, including 426 children — is contradicted by several groups.  Doctors Without Borders and Human Rights Watch have much lower initial estimates.  The photos commonly shown of the dead and wounded, horrific as they are, show only a few dozen.

The President was smart to take note of Prime Minister Cameron’s rebuff by the British Parliament.  By going to the House and Senate for guidance, he buys time for further validation or time to walk it back.  This may be the one time that this Congress serves us all well by doing what it does best: nothing.



  1. Judith permalink
    September 5, 2013 6:53 am

    Good history lesson and the insanity continues. Article in the NYTimes today tells of the brutality of the rebels and Kerry saying they haven’t been taken over by extremists. Look what has happened in Eygpt with our help and to many places to name yet the Palestinians wait in vain for help.

  2. Judith permalink
    September 5, 2013 6:56 am

    Spelling Egypt would be a good start.

    • September 5, 2013 8:54 am

      The U.S. just doesn’t seem to learn from history. Kerry is starting to sound more and more like a Republican hawk. I hoped for more from a VietVet.

  3. Gordon Raley permalink
    September 5, 2013 8:04 am

    I wish you had a column in the Washington Post.

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