President Barack Obama's moral indignation over the death by sarin gas of 1,429 Syrians, including hundreds of children, took us to the brink of military action against the Assad government. Last week's surprise Russian-American agreement on dismantling Syria's chemical arsenal ended the threat of an imminent strike. It also revealed the president's lack of outrage over the slaughter of 100,000 Syrians by conventional weapons.
The sarin attack on Aug. 21 was condemned by American leaders as a "moral obscenity," "crime against humanity," and "moral atrocity." Apparently the killing of the other 100,000 in a more traditional way does not merit presidential indignation.
The real crime against humanity in Syria is not a poison gas attack. The crime is a civil war that has killed not hundreds but thousands of children and has forced millions of innocent civilians into refugee camps.
"Moral obscenity?" Why didn't Secretary of State John Kerry utter those words when the first 1,429 Syrian men, women and children were killed by conventional weapons? Perhaps those deaths are acceptable since they came from weapons that are considered civilized.
The president told a national television audience about a frantic father in disbelief that his children were dead from a chemical attack. Almost as the president spoke, CBS reporter Clarissa Ward was in a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey, interviewing a mother whose infant daughter had been killed by bomb shrapnel that pierced her heart.
Are mothers whose children die by the usual weapons not the victims of a "moral obscenity?"
It shouldn't have taken the slaughter on Aug. 21 to unleash the president's revulsion. That should have occurred when the first 1,429 Syrian civilians died over two years ago.
We seem to be unmoved by the death of over 100,000 Syrians -- including thousands of children -- who died from the use of more acceptable means: shot, shelled, bombed, napalmed, bayoneted or in any other "humane" way that makes the enemy dead.
As long as it isn't poison gas or one of the other banned means of death, it apparently isn't a "crime against humanity."
Chemical weapons are horrendous. But so are napalm, phosphorous shells, and firestorms created by conventional bombing. And there is no doubt that the United States, or Israel, would use nuclear weapons, with all the horror they bring, if the government thought the nation's survival was at stake.
This is not a defense of chemical weapons. But why are Obama and Kerry outraged by their use when conventional weapons have killed in Syria many times the number of deaths attributed to poison gas?
Dismantle Syria's chemical weapons stockpile? Yes. But in addition, Obama should exert some moral authority in a full court diplomatic press to bring the war in Syria to an end without further violence. This he has not done.
There is a precedent. Teddy Roosevelt brought an end to the war between Russia and Japan over a century ago. For that he won a Nobel Peace Prize. Roosevelt had less influence in the world at that time than Obama has today, yet he successfully negotiated a peace agreement ending that war.
It is time for Obama to earn that undeserved Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded only a short time after his election. Threatening missile strikes against Syria isn't the way. He is capable of achieving a negotiated peace between Assad and the rebels. If he fails, he may have to give his peace prize to the Russian president.
Ralph E. Shaffer is professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly Pomona.