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Syria vs. North Korea: The Calculus of Mass Atrocities

The news of U.S. policy on Syria is, at this stage, moving in such loops and spirals that Russia -- major arms supplier and supporter of the Assad regime -- seems to be calling the shots. Suddenly the neutered United Nations is back in the ring, and for the average guy in Topeka, the whole thing by now probably makes about as much sense as the federal budget.

But if we might focus for a moment on the underlying issue: President Obama has been arguing that Syria's use of chemical weapons is "a serious threat to our national security."

There's a good case for that, but the president and his top officials have yet to make it in a way that fits into any coherent global strategy -- and yes, we live in a world of interconnected threats. Syria's closest ally is Iran; both are clients of North Korea's emporium of both conventional weapons and more exotic approaches to mass murder. Much entwined with their alarming ventures -- doing business with them, and running diplomatic interference for them -- are Russia and China. Add to that such matters as al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups, state-sponsored or otherwise, organizing the next plot to kill Americans.

Amid the president's talk of red lines, credibility, international norms, and changing calculus, Americans have been left wondering what the commander-in-Chief actually means when he says those words.

What equations does his math include? What variables will he factor in? How does this calculus apply to other threats, red lines, rogue regimes, and violations of norms?

The White House has accused Syria's Assad regime of a chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Citing that, the president told the nation he wanted to take action against Syrian military targets: "We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus."

Okay -- but how do we then explain turning a blind eye for years to atrocities on far larger scales, inflicted not in war but as a routine matter of state policy, because that's how the ruler stays on top?

What about a regime that, according to multiple accounts from defectors, has tested chemical weapons on its own women and children? What about a regime responsible for the deaths by politically targeted famine of an estimated million or more? What about a regime operating a gulag to which three generations of a family can be exiled for the suspected political disloyalty of a single member? What about a regime that routinely tortures, starves, and works to death those in its prison camps?

And what if that regime, while starving, torturing, and killing its own people, happens to sustain itself by selling chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear technology (including an entire clandestine nuclear reactor, a.k.a. a plutonium factory) to the Middle East, including Syria's regime in Damascus?

What if that regime were testing long-range missiles, and had already conducted three nuclear tests -- the most recent just this past February?

Would we target them with ... Dennis Rodman?