OK, I accept that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is a bad guy. The lives of his citizens matter less than retaining power.
That puts him in company with such other bad guys as Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Papa Doc Duvalier and Josef Stalin. All gained power through some form of the democratic process; all refused to exit by the same process.
The real test of democracy is not how people get elected, but how they get un-elected. In a democracy, the people can vote someone out - and perhaps more importantly, the person voted out accepts the people's decision.
Dictators can only be removed by force.
But stopping a bad guy is not, in itself, sufficient justification for intervening in a civil war. Northern nations felt no need to intervene in Biafra, Uganda or Rwanda.
Of course, those countries didn't use chemical weapons. Saddam Hussein did, twice - first against Iran, then against his own Kurdish minority. But American policy actually supported him until he invaded Kuwait and threatened U.S. oil supplies.
That would suggest Washington's antipathy to Assad is only partly about chemical weapons.
There's no question the Syrian civil war is a humanitarian disaster. In such a crisis, as David Sirota of Salon magazine noted, our instinctive reaction is, "Do something! Anything!"
But, like me, Sirota is not convinced that raining missiles from ships stationed in the Mediterranean will reduce the suffering. He asks, "When it comes to wars ostensibly waged in defence of human rights, will military action result in a net increase or decrease in human suffering?"
The experience of both Iraq and Afghanistan suggests intervention will exacerbate an already chaotic conflict, lead to thousands of additional deaths and produce millions more refugees.
Just to be clear, I normally support Barack Obama. I like him almost as much as I loathed George W. Bush.
But I have read Obama's "red line" speeches with skepticism. I can't help recalling the certainty with which those same U.S. intelligence sources affirmed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
At least one alternative news network, MintPress of Minneapolis, reported Syrian rebels had admitted launching the attack, using chemicals supplied by Saudi Arabia.
In one speech, Obama argued that a failure to punish Assad "could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, or their proliferation to terrorist groups who would do our people harm."
He seems to assume that a code of honour exists among terrorist groups that would cause them to voluntarily refrain from using chemical weapons on their enemies.
But it is precisely the absence of such a code of honour, of ethics, that makes them terrorists.
Most of us in western culture are products of The Enlightenment -- a European movement that flowered in the 1700s. It assumed that human behaviour could be influenced by reason, science and intellectual interchange. The principles of the Enlightenment influenced Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, fostered the American Revolution and shaped the American Constitution.
But the Enlightenment never penetrated more than our part of the world. (And it sometimes seems superficial even there.) The rest of the world continues to live in a tribal culture.
Tribal cultures have no middle grounds, no shades of grey. Everything is either black or white, right or wrong, us or them. Only the tribe matters. Or the family. Certainly not any abstract principles.
In tribal cultures, anyone who tarnishes the tribe's image must be punished. Hence the "honour killings" of women considered defiled by rape. When an outsider wrongs the tribe, that individual's identity is irrelevant -- the whole tribe is held responsible.
Obviously, then, no tribe will voluntarily submit to some other tribe's code of ethics. To do so admits the other tribe's dominance.
The whole Middle East is essentially a tribal conflict. In Syria, the warring tribes all happen to be factions of Islam, a much bigger tribe. But they are no more likely to submit to a set of outsider's standards than Americans are to adopt Sharia law.
In this context, punishing one tribe for crossing an imaginary red line will hardly cause other tribes to rethink their values.
I wonder if the tribal mindset also afflicts Washington. Obama portrays himself as speaking for the 189 nations who have endorsed the Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.
Only five nations have refused to sign the Convention. One of them is Syria.
Since 1993, an estimated 70 per cent of the world's stockpiles of chemical weapons have been destroyed. Again, the primary exception is Syria, which has, apparently, increased its inventory.
All of which makes Assad the outsider, and justifies anything done to him. Regardless of reasons.
Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at