Chemical Weapons


Teaching Assad a Lesson


“War”, said Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, “is hell.”

And the death of non-combatants, especially children, is a very special kind of it.

We Americans know something about that.

We sat idly by as tens-of-thousands of women and children were massacred with machetes in Rwanda and Burundi.

We averted our eyes as infants were taken from their mothers, had their throats slit and then were handed back in Srebrenica.

Indeed, during WW II we refused admission to Jewish refugees trying to escape Hitler’s campaign of terror and murder.

Now, as Syria’s Bashar Assad is deemed responsible for unleashing “chemical” terror against his own people, some say America must act.  We must, they say, defend humanity, democracy, stability and freedom.

The prohibition against indiscriminate acts of killing masquerading as war was firmly crossed during World War II.  Killing non-combatants in campaigns of terror is now routine.  To argue otherwise is to deny history and the totality of modern warfare.

Chemical Weapons

Napalm in Vietnam

But still, some say that the use of “chemical weapons” is especially pernicious and must not be tolerated.  That position apparently depends on whose chemicals are being used.  Napalm is a sophisticated chemical, a mixture of gasoline, benzene and styrene.  It is formulated to stick to the skin and to deoxygenate air, causing victims to suffocate.  It is also known for its acute psychological effects.

The US deployed 338,000 tons of napalm in Vietnam indiscriminately, against civilians, among them young children.

We also continue to defend the use of “depleted” uranium in artillery shells in Bosnia, Iraq and elsewhere despite evidence of birth defects and cancer.

Strategic Imperatives

American action abroad, (and the lack of it) is always based on so-called strategic imperatives either propelling us to act (or not) which often seem irresistible at the moment and incredibly foolish later.

The Middle East is most undemocratic.  It is tribal in the extreme and riven with  religious fanaticism where murder is commonplace, often justified by obscure religious writings.  Our strategic interest there directly coincides with the discovery of oil beneath their sand and our voracious reliance upon it.

To be truthful, we secretly lament the “Arab Spring” as all it has done is de-stabilize the part of the world fueling economic well-being.  No one can predict what the next chapter will bring.  Just ask Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood won a democratic election and the West was horrified.  We now rest easier as the military dictators are once again in control and democratic institutions and their leaders have been safely done away with.

This is crucial proof of America’s propensity to lurch between strategic hand-wringing one minute and bellicose war-mongering the next.  We have no idea what we want.

The Oil, Stupid

All we care about is the unimpeded flow of oil.  Beginning (at least) in 1953 with the CIA overthrow of Iran’s Mosaddegh, we have blithely installed and supported a string of dictators and murderers in order to keep the tankers coming.

America and its leaders are incapable of voluntarily changing our insatiable reliance on oil.  That oil happens to be in a place currently unsuited for peace or respect for human rights.  It is a frothing maelstrom of discontent where no strategic evaluation is valid for more than 24 hours.

So, excuse me for being impolitic, but is the world really better off without Saddam Hussein?  If you think so, ask the families of the 804 Iraqis murdered this August or the 5,000 this year.  Iraq, like Syria and Lebanon, teeters on the brink of civil war, one that we created.  In fact, Iraq categorically proves that intervention is perilous, costly, and horrendously inconclusive.  The mess you leave dwarfs the mess you began with.

Hitting Assad in the context of the chaos in the Middle East is like a college freshman swilling straight from a cold keg’s tap.  It feels good right now but tomorrow it is going to be ugly.

The President and his exhorters are engaging in a sorry excuse for strategy.

Being drunk on beer or power is never a pretty sight.


  • Bill Hand says:

    Well spoken Eric! Now let’s make the USA oil independent.
    Drill baby drill and frack baby frack. Then build the pipelines to bring it to market.
    I always enjoy your posts, you always make some thought provoking points.

  • Scott Marks says:

    How’d all our oil get under their sand to begin with? Great assessment, there is a national epidemic of amnesia and myopia on these issues.

  • Mike Schwartz says:

    Very powerful piece. Thank you. You make some very compelling points about our own inconsistency in our own use of chemical weapons. Question for me is…if we do not take any action and he starts to use chemical weapons indiscriminately, would that change your thinking at all?

  • David B.. says:

    I disagree. The prez has it right. The consequences of inaction will be worse than those of action. Moreover, a response may well cause Assad to decist from using chemicals again. The president’s measured, thoughful approach is exactly what we hoped for when we elected him.

    David B.

  • Kate Kidd says:

    Eric, This post clearly lays out the many contradictions in US policy in the Middle East and on chemical weapons. I agree that the options being explored by the US all have serious drawbacks. Bad policies and failure to talk with leaders of other countries in the past make current statements on chemical weapons in Syria appear contradictory and ill-advised. Unfortunately we have to live with our own history.

    However, this is not the past. Since 1993 most nations in the world, including the US, have signed the chemical weapons treaty. Most nations have destroyed their weapons. For nations that are members of the International Criminal Court, use of such weapons could result in prosecution by the ICC. The US is not a member.

    The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is reputable and should be able to provide a clear statement on chemical weapons use by Assad, or others, in Syria soon. Their report will take the verification process out of the hands of the US intelligence community which would be good.

    Although these treaties and organizations have their weaknesses, but they can provide a way for the international community to act. By supporting these treaties and organizations, we could shift the burden from the compromised shoulders of the US government. If they do a good job, the entire world community could benefit.

    Thanks for raising these important issues and especially for putting it in an historical context.

    Kate Kidd

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