Are Chemical Weapons Cause For War?

by Patrick Appel

Fisher identifies the administration’s primary objective in Syria – discouraging the future use of chemical weapons:

The idea is that, when the next civilian or military leader locked in a difficult war looks back on what happened in Syria, that leader will be more likely to conclude that the use of chemical weapons isn’t worth the risk.

If the Obama administration follows through on strikes, it’s fine to argue that America’s aim should be to force Assad from power, as many surely will. And it’s fine to argue that cruise missile strikes will or will not be effective at changing Assad’s calculus on chemical weapons, or that of future military leaders. But we should at least be clear, before it gets lost in the inevitable, worthy debates, that the United States has set a specific goal with its response to what Kerry called Syria’s “undeniable” use of chemical weapons, and it’s not winning the war.

Judis sees this as a worthy goal:

I think a nation’s credibility is important, but alone it is not enough to justify an intervention. In this case, what’s at stake is America’s willingness to enforce an international norm that is of benefit to the entire world.

Nick Gillespie disagrees:

If you think the U.S. should intervene militarily in even more places than we have already in the past dozen years, then please don’t hide behind the false threat or unique evil of chemical weapons.

The Assad regime is every bit as evil and rotten as the Hussein regime was. Instead of drawing lines in the sand over WMDs and all that, plead your case on the grounds that superpowers should try to stop the slaughter of innocents. I think that case is ultimately difficult to prove (or rather, it’s difficult to explain how American intervention will not ultimately lead to more problems than it might solve). But don’t rely on unexamined premises that one sort of weapon underwrites a response more than carnage itself.

Walt makes related points:

Proponents of action argue that the U.S. must intervene to defend the norm against chemical weapons. Using nerve agents like sarin is illegal under international law, but they are not true “weapons of mass destruction.” Because they are hard to use in most battlefield situations, chemical weapons are usually less lethal than non-taboo weapons like high explosive. Ironically we would therefore be defending a norm against weapons that are less deadly than the bombs we would use if we intervene. This justification would also be more convincing if the U.S. government had not ignored international law whenever it got in the way of something Washington wanted to do.