Why Should Chemical Weapons Be a Red Line in Syria—or Anywhere Else?


Writing at The Washington Times last week, John Glaser raised a question that's almost impolite in discussions about U.S. foreign policy. Basically, he asked why chemical weapons are considered a trigger point or red line when it comes to intervening abroad.

There have been an estimated 100,000 people killed in Syria's civil war, almost all by conventional bombs and weapons. If that isn't enough to mandate a U.S. intervention, then why is the alleged use of chemical weapons, killing a mere fraction of the total, enough to make intervention obligatory?

Glaser cites an article in Foreign Affairs from earlier this year that raises the same basic point. Written by Ohio State's John Mueller (like Glaser, an occasional Reason contributor) back in April, the article makes the case that "we shouldn't care about Syria's chemical weapons." 

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons' inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.

As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. 

Read the whole thing here.

I don't believe in "humanitarian interventions," or at least certainly not the sort that would lead the U.S. into a Syrian civil war in which our own government clearly has no idea of what's what or who's who. And I find it amazing that we're not even fully disengaged from Iraq yet (a war promulgated over fears of WMDs commonly understood to be first and foremost "chemical weapons") and here we are talking about invading Syria because of…chemical weapons?

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.