The Irrelevance of Chemical Weapons

by Benjamin Studebaker

Well, it’s been coming for a while now–Barack Obama has decided to arm the Syrian rebels. The justification? The administration believes that somewhere between 100 and 200 people in Syria have been killed with chemical weapons, specifically, nerve agents, even more specifically, sarin. It is too often taken for granted that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government provides a good reason for the United States to intervene in the Syrian conflict on behalf of the rebels. The assumption must be questioned–does the use of chemical weapons make it in the interest of the United States to intervene where before it was not in the US interest to do so?

The argument against intervention in Syria never really depended upon the conduct of the Assad regime. Originally, the argument was more or less an appeal to something like the prime directive from Star Trek, which forbids the intervention of technologically advanced civilizations in the domestic political affairs of less-advanced civilizations. In Star Trek, this principle is the core moral principle to which characters are expected to adhere. The argument in the Syrian case differed somewhat from this.

In the Syrian case, it is argued that while it would be permissible to intervene in Syria for the benefit of the United States and its people, the United States does not have any core interests at stake in the conflict and that intervention could lead to blowback, to negative unintended consequences or negative externalities for the United States. The basis for this fear of negative results rests on the history of US intervention in the Middle East, the outcomes of which can be viewed as invariably disastrous:

  • The US supported the Shah in Iran, leading to its receiving the enmity of the Iranian people, leading to the 1979 Iranian Revolution in which an anti-American government took power there and global oil prices soared, increasing US inflation.
  • The US armed Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, empowering and emboldening Hussein to attack Kuwait in 1990, a US ally. As a result, the US ended up fighting the Gulf War, at some financial cost, and later ended up fighting the Iraq War, at substantial cost.
  • The US armed Islamist fighters in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of that country, leading to Soviet expulsion. However, the Afghan Islamists used their new-found independence to provide a haven for anti-US terrorist organizations, leading to 9/11 and the Afghan War.
  • The US has consistently armed and supported Israel, causing numerous Islamic states and peoples to revile it, contributing to all of these other things.

The list goes–US interventions, either financial or military, have had negative consequences in Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, many places in the region.

This leads us to several hypotheses about what might result from intervention in Syria:

  1. The new government may be more hostile to US interests than the old government.
  2. Even if the new government is friendly, the short term advantages we reap will be outweighed by the long-term disadvantages when that new government in turn collapses in favor of a much more hostile regime.
  3. The intervention itself could be costly and it could embroil us in an extended conflict that is very expensive in lives, time, and dollars.

With these outcomes in mind and the history of US intervention in the Middle East as backdrop, a healthy skepticism and opposition to US intervention in Syria exists. Impressively, American voters seem to grasp these arguments, according to a recent Gallup poll:

Yet this argument fails to persuade as soon as the question presumes that the Assad regime has used “chemical weapons”, according to a Pew poll:

Interestingly, the people who have followed the Syrian story most closely are most likely to be influenced by the use of chemical weapons. Yet it is not obvious how chemical weapons change the equation. Their use makes those negative outcomes of which we have a healthy fear no less likely to happen. What’s the deal?

Chemical weapons have been classified as “weapons of mass destruction”, and the public seems to believe that the use of chemical weapons is in itself, by its very nature, more wrong than ordinary war. Yet while chemical weapons are certainly not the same as conventional weapons in the way they kill people, the result is the same–people are dead who were previously alive, and the weapon is to blame. One might argue that the same claim could be made of nuclear weapons, but nukes release radioactive material that sticks around for ages, that increase the incidence of cancer worldwide. Every detonation of a nuclear weapon harms not only the people being nuked, but all people everywhere. Chemical weapons aren’t like that. A release of nerve gas in Syria cannot harm a person 50 miles away, let alone someone on the other side of the world. There are also antidotes for many nerve agents, and one can protect oneself from many of them with a gas mask. Radiation is unstoppable. There’s a fundamental distinction here.

Now, one might argue that because nerve gas floats around rather than targets specific individuals, it’s more likely to harm non-combatants, but bombs kill non-combatants all the time. Plus, how much of a non-combatant are most “non-combatants”? Even if a citizen is not holding a gun, he may be feeding the soldiers, or manufacturing their weapons, or improving their morale. There are many ways to contribute to a war effort without directly participating in the fighting, and an enemy seeking to win a war quickly with minimal losses could be thought reasonable if it seeks to undermine the army from its foundation rather than engage it in battle directly. Whether you think non-combatants deserve special status or not, it’s not as if the Syrian government wasn’t killing non-combatants before it used chemical weapons, and there’s no guarantee that the chemical weapons were used with non-combatants specifically in mind. In any case, only a couple hundred people have been killed with sarin–there have been at least 93,000 deaths in the conflict. Chemical weapons play a trivial role in all this. It’s a peripheral issue blown out of proportion by the administration.

If you think it’s in the US interest to ensure that the Assad regime falls, you should think so regardless of whether or not the Assad regime uses chemical weapons. By the same token, if you think the US should stay out of Syria, the use of chemical weapons should have nothing to do with that opinion. By making the question of US intervention all about chemical weapons, Barack Obama has avoided the question of whether intervention is well and truly in the American interest. We find ourselves arguing about what kind of weapons the government used to achieve its military objectives instead of arguing about whether or not we really have a stake in those objectives to begin with. It’s the wrong argument, and it’s ultimately a distraction used by the administration to duck the question.