Sunday, September 1, 2013

Use of chemical weapons is not unique

President Obama announced Saturday that he would put the bombing of Syria over its use of chemical weapons before Congress, although he reserved the right to go forward with military action even if Congress objected. The British House of Commons had already shot down Prime Minister David Cameron's proposal to authorize military action against Syria, leaving the United States alone in its plan to bomb Syria.

A majority of the U.S. public and many members of Congress have reservations about getting involved in the Syrian civil war for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the acknowledgement that the administration doesn't know what the outcome of its action might be. Will it strengthen the rebels or will it strengthen the resolve of President Assad? Will it push the Assad regime to negotiate or will it lead to deadly attacks from Iran, Hezbollah or other groups against the United States, Western Europe and Israel? No one knows.

But lost in the debate thus far is the fact that Syria's use of chemical weapons is not unique. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988, and chemical weapons were used in the Iran-Iraq war earlier. Chemical weapons were used extensively in World War I, but Adolf Hitler declined to use his available chemical weapons in World War II out of fear of deadly retaliation. This article from The Atlantic covers some of that history and explains how chemical weapons affects people.

The United States has its own history of chemical weapons. U.S. military units have trained for at least 40 years (I remember the drills) for what was called "NBC Warfare" — Nuclear, Biological and Chemical. In 1968, an accident at a secret U.S. military laboratory killed off 3,000 sheep in Utah. That accident was reported to be one of several at the secret chemical weapons lab. U.S. officials could defend chemical weapons by the Cold War excuse that it was necessary to counter Soviet capabilities. When U.S. troops invaded Iraq in 2003, they were equipped and prepared for chemical warfare.

Chemical weapons are banned by international treaty, and their use has been limited in part because every possessor of chemical weapons fears retaliation in kind. Chemical weapons lead to horrible deaths, but other weapons, conventional, nuclear or otherwise, also lead to deaths. In World War II, millions of civilians died, nearly all of them from "conventional" weapons. They would be no more dead if chemical weapons had been used.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have argued for an attack on Syria as if Syria were the only country to use chemical weapons ever. That simply isn't the case. Treaties have banned chemical weapons since the 19th century, but those international agreements that chemical weapons are bad have not stopped the production or use of chemical weapons.

Does the U.S. still have chemical weapons? I hope someone will ask that question as Congress debates an attack on Syria.

What Syria has done to its own people is horrible, but it has been done before, and the United States did not feel a need to teach the perpetrators a lesson. In fact, in the Iran-Iraq War, the United States took Iraq's side.

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