12/06/2012 12:12 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2013

Scolding Syria

So, that charnel house that is Syria may now experience the hell of chemical weapons use. U.S. satellite photos show heightened activity around sites that store these munitions, and president Bashar al Assad faces the exigencies that make their use feasible.

The idea of using these weapons frightens me, but, from a pragmatic point of view, what has he got to lose? His ruling clique comes from a sect that comprises only fifteen percent of the population, and the Sunni insurgents, who are composed of both Syrian and foreign fighters, are gradually gaining the upper hand. If the insurgents are to be believed, defeat for Assad would mean his death, along with bad ends for his family and as many of his Alawite brethren as the insurgents can get their hands on.

How many people would you kill if you were without sufficient outside aid and you had to save the lives of your family as well as your own? What weapons would you use? This isn't the end of Home Alone, where a few nasty practical jokes will defeat hapless burglars.

Let's step back and put the Syrian situation into the context in which it belongs. The New York Times reported yesterday that weapons meant for Libyan freedom fighters ended up in the wrong hands. The same happened in Afghanistan, and who knows where else. Ask any old American war veteran how often U.S. troops have been shot by M-16s. What about all those Russian and Chinese-made RPGs, anti-air missiles, and machine guns, Russian tanks, etc., from which our troops have suffered? Even Pakistan's nuclear program came from somewhere else. Syria did not build the fighters it is flying, design the tanks it is using, or invent the nerve agents it is readying.

The reality is that there is no topic discussed more frequently in defense trade publications than weapons sales. They are good for governments because they bring in foreign exchange, and, because they allow defense contractors to build larger quantities of the weapons being sold, thus driving down the cost to each country's own military through economies of scale. Just look at the hysteria surrounding the shrinking foreign sales of the F-35 fighter and you'll quickly get the picture.

But the world is not merely awash in weapons. Much has been made recently of the American penchant for relying on its military to exercise its foreign policy, a fact that is reinforced by the way the federal budget is skewed toward the Department of Defense. However, Russia and China have stepped up their defense spending, and have gradually become more bellicose. Even Japan, pacifist since World War II, is looking to alter constitutional prohibitions on how vigorously it can exercise its power militarily as it contends with China over waters that mutually border their countries. And when Sweden or Italy talk about "fighter gaps," just whom do they think is getting ready to attack?

The tendency toward arming with the latest and greatest is even greater in many developing and third world countries. A lack of governmental regard for individual life and an inability to garner respect any other way but to arm lead to the squandering of important resources that should be spent on bettering the lot of the poor. Add a sharpening of ideological, religious, and ethnic lines, and diplomacy is routinely eschewed nowadays in favor of the chance to try out the new hardware.

The result, as Darth Vader would say, is that, "The circle is complete." Take a country created artificially and sharply divided by ethnic, religious, and tribal lines; a government, and a minority one at that, armed by Russia and Iran with the latest stuff around; an insurgency trading lives for time as it slowly accumulates its own up-to-date hardware; a winner-take-all mentality; and a regional attitude that, unpleasant as it is, collateral damage is all part of the game. There's Syria. And Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, Gaza, and who knows how many more to follow.

It's regrettable, but it's the arena that the so-called civilized world has created. When we're not fighting our own wars, we're content to help our surrogates, as if we're training them for some global cock-fighting league. We arm them, train them, goad them, and then express horror and regret when they actually teach us a thing or two about how horribly we can kill each other. Taking into account the history of the first world, it seems a little hypocritical of us to decide who should play by what rules.

As for chemical weapons, they're not likely to save Assad, just as they didn't save Germany in World War I, would not have been decisive in World War II, and didn't change anything when used for defoliation in Vietnam. They've caused incredible misery, and probably will again, but probably nothing close to that caused by land mines, which we still develop. (Interestingly, we've not signed onto the international treaty prohibiting land mine use, mainly because of South Korea.)

So, if our government wants to draw an arbitrary, rather hypocritical line in the sand at Assad's use of chemical weapons, fine. If we're going to bring the world back to its senses, we have to start somewhere. But I would apply two caveats.

First, think about whom you sell your junk to. The real so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs" isn't the new stuff, the smart munitions, computers, and networks, but the fact that anyone, no matter how primitive, can get the most modern stuff and use it. It will take someone smarter than I to figure out how to regulate sales.

Second, please don't use U.S. troops to fix this problem. I suspect we did not provide the nerve gas. The people who did probably delivered it, set up the storage facilities, and taught the Syrians how to use it. Let those guys take care of this one.