What’s So Terrible About Chemical Weapons?
Yes, the title is intended to be provocative. And yes, I think chemical weapons are indeed terrible. But statements like this — offered by John Kerry in thinly-veiled support for using military force against the Syrian government — still give me pause (emphasis mine):
What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality. Let me be clear. The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity. By any standard, it is inexcusable. And despite the excuses and equivocations that some have manufactured, it is undeniable.
I don’t get it. Why is the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with chemical weapons unacceptable, but not the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians with ordinary weapons? Why should the US be willing to intervene if chemical weapons kill 1,000 civilians, but not if ordinary weapons kill tens of thousands? I’m with Stephen Walt concerning the US’s apparent belief that the Syrian government did not cross the (blurry) red line until it used chemical weapons:
But why? Nobody should be pleased that Assad’s forces (may) have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious to me why the choice of weapon being used is a decisive piece of information that tips the balance in favor of the pro-intervention hawks. It’s been obvious for decades that the entire Assad regime was nasty, and it’s been equally clear that the government forces were using lots of destructive military force to suppress the opposition. How else did 70-80,000 Syrians die over the past two years? It’s not as though Assad has been acting with great restraint and sensitivity to civilian casualties and then suddenly decided to unleash sarin gas. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks, or chemical weapons? Dead is dead no matter how it is done.
If there was significant reason to believe that the attack near Damascus was merely the tip of the iceberg — that the Syrian government intended to launch a full-scale chemical attack in the near future, one that could kill hundreds of thousands of civilians — I could understand the obsession with chemical weapons. But I have not seen any evidence of that. And in any case, I’m not sure why we are supposed to believe that the Syrian government would not respond to US military intervention by using chemical weapons even more indiscriminately. (As an aside, why is it that dictators are expected to fight to the death in order to avoid being prosecuted by the ICC, but are expected to roll over meekly in the face of US military might?)
It’s also worth noting that US outrage at Syria’s use of chemical weapons is more than a little hypocritical. Just yesterday, FP.com published a blockbuster article detailing — on the basis of declassified CIA documents — the US’s knowing support for Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. Apparently it is only unacceptable to use chemical weapons when you’re an enemy of the US; if you’re an ally (as Saddam was at that point), they’re fine.
The bottom line, it seems to me, is this: either the US believes in unilateral humanitarian intervention or it doesn’t. If it does, it should have been willing to use militarily force in Syria long ago, when tens of thousands of civilians were being indiscriminately slaughtered by the Syrian government. If it doesn’t, the fact that civilians are now being indiscriminately slaughtered by the Syrian government through the use of chemical weapons should be irrelevant.
Murder by chemical weapons is terrible. But so is any kind of murder. As Walt says, “[d]ead is dead no matter how it’s done.”