Obama Administration

America's Cynical Policy on Chemical Weapons

Political and economic interests play a much bigger role in U.S. involvement in Syria than the government lets on.


"I didn't set a red line. The world set a red line."

That was President Obama's response this week to those who believe he wants to attack Syria in order to defend his own credibility. Secretary of State John Kerry said the same thing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They were referring to the 88-year-old Geneva Protocol (Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare) and the 20-year-old Chemical Weapons Convention (Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction).

Although 189 nations, including the United States, are parties to the CWC, it doesn't follow that the United States has been anointed to enforce it. In fact, U.S. action against Syria would in itself violate international law, which permits the use of force by one government against another only in self-defense or as part of a UN-authorized action. Neither applies in this case. (There are libertarian grounds against war even when the UN has authorized it.)

Because the gruesome images of children and other noncombatants killed and wounded allegedly by Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons constitute a powerful part of Obama's appeal for public support for his missile strike (or more), it pays to take a close look at the U.S. record on chemical weapons.

Fortunately, Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, where he chairs the program in Middle Eastern Studies, has done this. The record isn't pretty.

Before looking at Zunes's findings, let us note that while Syria is not a party to the CWC, neither are U.S. allies Egypt and Israel, which receive billions of dollars each year in military equipment. (Unlike Egypt, Israel signed the convention in 1993, but it has not been ratified by the Knesset, which means that Israel is not a party to it.) Israel, like Egypt, is considered to have stockpiles of chemical weapons; it also has biological and nuclear weapons. Indeed, Israel is a nuclear monopolist in the Middle East—a fact usually left unmentioned in reports on Iran's alleged nuclear-weapons program. Moreover, unlike Iran, Israel is not a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Syria's chemical arsenal and Israel's nuclear arsenal are linked, according to the Washington Post's Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler, in "History Lesson: When the United States Looked the Other Way on Chemical Weapons":

Syria's chemical weapons stockpile results from a never-acknowledged gentleman's agreement in the Middle East that as long as Israel had nuclear weapons, Syria's pursuit of chemical weapons would not attract much public acknowledgement or criticism. (The Fact Checker, when serving as The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent, learned of this secret arrangement from Middle Eastern and Western diplomats, but it was never officially confirmed.) These are the sorts of trade-offs that happen often in diplomacy. After all, Israel's nuclear stockpile has never been officially acknowledged, and Syria in the 1980s and 1990s was often supportive of U.S. interests in the region, even nearly reaching a peace deal with Israel.

U.S. presidents have not always been as vigilant about the use of chemical weapons as Obama is today. Saddam Hussein gassed and killed tens of thousands of Iranians during Iraq's war against Iran in the 1980s. Kessler writes,

As documented in 2002 by Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, the Reagan administration knew full well it was selling materials to Iraq that was [sic] being used for the manufacture of chemical weapons, and that Iraq was using such weapons [against Iran], but U.S. officials were more concerned about whether Iran would win rather than how Iraq might eke out a victory. Dobbs noted that Iraq's chemical weapons' use was "hardly a secret…."

. . .

In 1988, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered chemical weapons attacks against Kurdish resistance forces, but the relationship with Iraq at the time was deemed too important to rupture over the matter. The United States did not even impose sanctions.

Of course, Barack Obama was not president in the 1980s, but that does not keep the world from seeing the hypocrisy in his position on Syria.

The Post report supports Zunes's conclusion in his May 2 article, "The U.S. and Chemical Weapons: No Leg to Stand On," that "U.S. policy regarding chemical weapons has been so inconsistent and politicized that the United States is in no position to take leadership in response to any use of such weaponry by Syria." Zunes points out a glaring example of this inconsistency:

Never has Congress or any administration of either party called on Israel or Egypt to disarm their chemical weapons arsenals, much less threatened sanctions for having failed to do so. U.S. policy, therefore, appears to be that while it is legitimate for its allies Israel and Egypt to refuse to ratify this important arms control convention, Syria needed to be singled out for punishment for its refusal.

Bear in mind that during the June 1967 war, Israel wrested the Golan Heights from Syria and annexed them in 1981, building settlements in contravention of international law, which forbids acquiring territory via war. While the border between Syria and Israel has been stable all these years, Syria aspires to recover the lost territory and has been willing to negotiate with Israel. "In 2007," Zunes writes, "the United States successfully pressured Israel to reject peace overtures from the Syrian government in which the Syrians offered to recognize Israel and agree to strict security guarantees in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory." Today, Israel's chief American lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is actively promoting an American war against Syria (and Iran).

The U.S. record on chemical weapons is poor in other respects. Zunes reports that the administration of George W. Bush forced the removal of the respected director general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which enforces the Chemical Weapons Convention, Brazilian diplomat José Bustani:

[B]y 2002, the United States began raising objections to Bustani's insistence that the OPCW inspect U.S. chemical weapons facilities with the same vigor it does for other signatories. More critically, the United States was concerned about Bustani's efforts to get Iraq to sign the convention and open their facilities to surprise inspections as is done with other signatories. If Iraq did so, and the OPCW failed to locate evidence of chemical weapons that Washington claimed Saddam Hussein's regime possessed, it would severely weaken American claims that Iraq was developing chemical weapons.

Zunes's article also discusses the Reagan administration's provision of thiodiglycol, which is used to make mustard gas, and other chemical precursors to Iraq's Saddam Hussein:

The March 1988 massacre in the northern Iraqi city of Halabja, where Saddam's forces murdered up to 5,000 Kurdish civilians with chemical weapons, was downplayed by the Reagan administration, with some officials even falsely claiming that Iran was actually responsible. The United States continued sending aid to Iraq even after the regime's use of poison gas was confirmed.

From the mainstream media's reporting on the Middle East, one would never know that, as Zunes writes, "Syria has joined virtually all other Arab states in calling for … a 'weapons of mass destruction-free zone' for the entire Middle East. In December 2003, Syria introduced a UN Security Council resolution reiterating this clause from 12 years earlier, but the resolution was tabled as a result of a threatened U.S. veto."

The implications are shocking in light of the current crisis. Zunes argues,

A case can be made, then, that had the United States pursued a policy that addressed the proliferation of non-conventional weapons through region-wide disarmament rather than trying to single out Syria, the Syrian regime would have rid itself of its chemical weapons some years earlier along with Israel and Egypt, and the government's alleged use of such ordnance — which is now propelling the United States to increase its involvement in that country's civil war — would have never become an issue.

Clearly we have what Zunes calls "a longstanding pattern of hostility by the United States towards international efforts to eliminate chemical weapons through a universal disarmament regime. Instead, Washington uses the alleged threat from chemical weapons as an excuse to target specific countries whose governments are seen as hostile to U.S. political and economic interests."

We're witnessing the latest episode in that longstanding pattern today.

This column originally appeared in the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. Of course, Barack Obama was not president in the 1980s, but that does not keep the world from seeing the hypocrisy in his position on Syria.

    Hold on there Sheldon, I don’t think the world is seeing much hypocrisy in Obama. Still a long way to go before that happens, unfortunately.

    1. “I don’t think the world is seeing much hypocrisy in Obama.”

      I think the world sees plenty of hypocrisy in Obama. This comes from an ABC news story couple years ago:

      “Tens of millions of dollars of U.S. military financing will continue to flow to Yemen and three other countries that recruit and use child soldiers, despite a 2008 U.S. law designed to restrict U.S. taxpayer funding of foreign militaries that enlist children to fight in war.

      The White House issued a memorandum Tuesday evening to allow military funding to Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Chad, three of the six countries on the State Department’s list of foreign governments that recruit and use child soldiers in state-backed armed forces and militias.

      Human rights advocates say the presidential waivers, issued for a second year in a row, undermine the intentions of Congress.”

    2. This is actually the best job Ive had. I work at Home with Google. I’ve made $64,000 so far this year working online and I’m a full time student. Moreover, My Uncle Carson got a stunning gold Porsche Cayenne Hybrid only from working part time off a pc. Official website http://www.Pow6.com

  2. We also have a pretty lousy record of choosing sides in civil wars. Like holding Serbia down on a cease fire and letting the KLA attack them. Then bombing Serbians when they reacted to the cease fire violations. I think we were bombing bad ass enemy combatants like the people who worked at the television station in Sarajevo.

  3. Bear in mind that during the June 1967 war, Israel wrested the Golan Heights from Syria and annexed them in 1981,

    Yes, that had everything to do with Jewish perfidy and not the fact that Syria and her allies used the higher ground of the Golan to set up batteries of artillery rain fiery death upon a large area of Israel during the Six-Day War, a war of aggression against Israel.

    Are you capable of stating even the most basic facts about Israel without lying through your yellow crooked teeth, Richman?

    1. “””the Six-Day War, a war of aggression against Israel.”””

      You mean the war which started on June 5 when Israel destroyed Egypt’s air force on the ground in a surprise attack?

      1. And which was preceded by the United Arab Republic (Egypt) massing about 100,000 troops in the Sinai. Neither side has ever been innocent in Arab-Israeli conficts.

        1. And blocking the strait at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba.

          1. Under that idea, Japan was justified in attacking Pearl Harbor since the US was building up forces in the Pacific, was sending thinly disguised US fighters and pilots to China, blocked Japan’s access to the Panama Canal, seized Japans assets and organized an embargo against Japan.

            1. Well, the difference there is that FDR was meddling overseas. Israel was defending itself against a very large threat.

            2. I’m probably going to get some rocks thrown at me for saying this, but…

              Technically a lot of what you describe, especially the seizing of assets and trade embargo, could be considered acts of war *ducks*. At the very least had some country done all that to us (blocked access to a major international trade route, seized American assets, embargoed us, not so clandestinely assisted an enemy we were at war with. etc.) we would have been mighty pissed.

              Not that any of that rises to the level of justifying a military sneak attack, but still…

              *Disclaimer: None of this is to imply that the Japanese Empire weren’t the “bad guys”. The atrocities that many of their troops committed in the territories they occupied (the rape of Nanking, their subjigation of Korea, The Bataan Death Martch, etc.) clearly makes them the “bad guys”. Just that FDR’s administration doesn’t get a free pass just because it’s FDR.

              1. Rarely does anyone deserve a free pass in war. It’s just varrying levels of culpability. The US certainly intervened in WWI and both theatres of WWII before officially joining battle.

      2. Ah, yes. The plucky “freedom fighters” of the PLO’s continuous campaign of guerrilla warfare, aided and abetted by the Arab nations at the time, never counts, does it? “War” only starts when the Israelis choose to defend themselves.

        1. The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the “Fourth”), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War” if we call it anything, which we usually don’t and in any case the historians date the beginning of “war” after the time I joined my first outfit and ship. Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war.”

      3. Yes, that one.


        If it had been my call I woulda nuked Cairo and Damascus.

        1. That would have been a terribly unjust and monstrously immoral act. I hope you were being facetious.

          1. when someone is bent not just on defeating you militarily but wiping you off the map, beating them to punch is not bad strategy. Sends a clear message to anyone else who’s feeling froggy.

            1. There is something to be said for proportional responses when millions of relatively innocent civilians are involved. Also, I imagine tensions between Israel and the Arabs would be much worse today if they had acted so rashly back then. Martyrdom is very powerful.

    2. Israel shot first in the Six Day War. Yes, I know the Arabs were the aggressors, but I think it’s not quite cricket to fire the first shots and then annex so much territory.

      If they’d just launched the strikes, and not annexed the land, that would be one thing. But by capturing all that ground after firing first, well, it’s pretty much a straight up war of aggression in the eyes of many.

      1. The aggressor only has to win once.

        1. You mean like the 56 War where plucky innocent Israelis fought off Arab hordes by conspiring with the British and French to invade the Suez Canal?

          1. I don’t recall saying the Israelis are always innocent.

            If they don’t like Israel annexing land then, you know, stop giving it reasons.

            1. In 1973, without the aid from the Nixon administration, the Israelis would have lost the Yom Kippur war.

              If the Israelis are so tough, can’t they do without big Yankee?

              1. If the Arabs are so tough, why can’t they do without their Russian buddies.

                War isn’t football.

                1. I’m not making the point that the arabs are tough, nor am I making the point that the arabs are without fault or that they are libertopia here on Earth.

                  As for the aid, do you think that the Russians have furnished an amount equal to or greater than the aid the US has given to Israel?

                  1. Greater. The entire Arab war machine was rebuilt in the six years between 67 and 73, all of it from Russia. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Russian “advisors” fought in 73, mostly in antiaircraft batteries.

                    The US by contrast, just supplied ammo when the Israelis ran out.

                    1. Today according to the Cato Institute we subsidize about a quarter of their economy.

                    2. See, Maggie Thatcher was right! Socialism IS wonderful until you run out of other people’s money.

      2. And it might have been ok to annex that territory as a defensive buffer, but then they went and allowed settlements to be built. That turned it from a defensive war into a territorial war.

        1. So they allowed settlements to be built. Would you rather they prohibited people from living there? Since when are people here against allowing people to do things?

          1. Thats right. I thought everyone here supported the idea of people being able to live anywhere they want.

            1. I’m all for letting people live where they want, so long as they obtain the land legally. When Israel took the Golan Heights, they drove off nearly 100,000 people. That land should still belong to those individuals.

      3. I do agree that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, as it was never within the boundaries of Israel, historical or modern, it is disingenuous to criticize the Israelis for annexing the territory when you consider its tactical position. Syrian control of the Golan allowed them to place artillery in such a position that it constituted an existential threat to Israel, not to mention control of certain vital watersheds.

        As an analogy, think just five years prior, the United States went apeshit during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and rightly so. Do you begrudge American actions during that event?

        Furthermore, speaking of cynical hypocrisy, what of Okinawa, Guantanamo Bay, and all the other U.S. military bases around the world whose governments have asked us to vacate but we refuse to do so? Okinawa, Guam, Saipan, the Federated States of Micronesia, etc. are exactly the same state as the Golan Heights, but we never seem to get around to talking about that, do we?

        1. Ah, have you been listening?

        2. If the Golan heights were returned how long do you think it would be before it was once again used as a staging ground for attacks against Israel?

          Let me put it another way. How often has Israel been invading by it’s neighbors since taking the Golan heights?

          You might not agree with it but, but Israel’s decision seems to have put a stop the cycle of violence that began the day the state of Israel was given full recognition.

          1. I have nothing against Israel taking the heights or colonizing them. I have issues with subsidizing it with US arms and money.

        3. What makes you think the people there would be better off living under Syria’s gov’t than under Israel’s? Is there any other criterion you think should be applied to which gov’t gets to rule over which people or place? If so, why? Why should any other criterion take precedence over the amount of individual liberty?

    3. You know, call me old fashioned, but if the Arabs (and their terrible management and strategy skills) hadn’t, like you know, ATTACKED Israel, maybe they wouldn’t have lost those territories. What’s that saying? Spoils go to the victors? Ah, but in the case of Israel, it becomes “occupied” and “annexed.”

      1. Yeah but for many, the Israelis attacked first in the Six Day War. Now, for some of these people Israel would be the attacker if the last Jew alive bled on their boots while they were kicking him to death. But there are many people who bear no animosity towards Jews or Israel who believe they went too far in 1967, and that their actions then make it difficult to come to a modus vivendi now.

        1. Well, I do think the settlements should cease and Golan returned to Syria. But will that pacify anything?

          1. Why should settlements cease?

            Let’s take an American example. Some people would consider the ground of the Americas to be occupied territory that is actually (in some way) Indian. Would it be better if people were forbidden to live there or operate businesses from those addresses?

            1. Ergo, why I don’t, as a general point, don’t get too invested in the region. Too much going on with too many perspectives it’s impossible to pin down.

              Valid points can be made by all sides.

              Except Arrec Barrin.

          2. “But will that pacify anything?”

            How would we know unless it’s tried? Might sound flippant but it’s true that all diplomatic initiatives require a leap into the dark.

            I don’t see the halting of settlements and the return of occupied territory any time soon. A good thing too, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve never been a fan of what is seriously referred to as “the two state solution.” As for the Arabs, other forces than their dispute with Israel seem to have captured their attention for the time being.

      2. But it was Israel who attacked Egypt in the 56 war and the 67 war. In 56 it made a secret deal with Britain and France to seize the Suez canal and in 67 war it destroyed the Egyptian air force on the ground in a surprise attack.

        1. Except the Arabs were about to launch a war in 67. They had massed troops, readied their air forces, stockpiled fuel and weapons, etc.

        2. Yes, I know about ’56 and it’s clear what happened there I agree.

  4. The US is itself in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention since it is behind schedule destroying the US stockpile.

    The US was burning its stockpile but the locals around a couple of storage areas objected and so they are going to use a chemical detoxification method but its way behind schedule and over budget

  5. HM, why the resort to ad homs, so early in the day?

    1. Because Israel is a civilized nation surrounded by a sea of red eyed savages calling for their wanton murder and unrelentingly attempting to do just that.

      People who are objective and honest tend to get a little pissed when mealy mouth attempts are made to switch the blame.

      1. Ad homs are still irrelevant and unnecessary. Besides, Israel is far from innocent. I understand taking the Golan Heights for defensive purposes. But why allow settlements there knowing that it will just piss the Arabs off even more?

        1. I agree about ad hominems, but it is forgivable when your blood is up.

          1. Objective and honest means that one acknowledge that Israel is a socialist, militarist nation state which has a history of perpetrating massacres against civilians.

            Objective and honest also means that one does not try to deflect or excuse the above or play the “arabs are worse” game.

            1. Militarist? How would you react if you were surrounded but millions of Arabs who want nothing short of committing genocide against your people?

              1. Implicit in your question is the omission of some important facts.

                Why would you deliberately insist upon creating a nation state dedicated as a homeland for a certain religion and ethnicity in an area which was already populated by others?

                Why would you deliberately make war against those who did not want to be part of your ethnic and religious based state?

                Why would you deliberately engage in mass murder in order to get your special nation state?

                1. “already populated by others”
                  Don’t be ridiculous, have you seen a picture of the founding of Tel Aviv?
                  Stop buying cheap anti Israeli propaganda.
                  The British Mandate was virtually inhabited when Israel was founded. Much of the land had actually been bought by rich Jewish families from Europe like the Rotschilds. In the 1948 war Arabs were expelled from some lands but so were Jews. Jews from Gaza, for example, had to flee their homes were they had lived for centuries.

        2. Showing ‘Who’s the Boss’ reruns would piss off the Arabs. A fly landing on their noses would piss of Arabs. Using their garb as paper towels like Bugs Bunny did would piss of the Arabs as it did Yosemite Sam.

          You-hoo Mr. A-rab!

          1. Damn, my caps lock AND ‘f’ keys are not functioning right.

          2. Israel very existence is what pisses off the Arabs.

    2. Have you seen Richman’s teeth?

      1. No.

        Tell me about them.

          1. Too late for some intensive flossing and whitening?

  6. And now Assad says he’s willing to turn over his chemical weapons to international authorities for destruction. This could just be a stalling technique, but he could also be serious (if he really doesn’t want anyone else getting involved in the larger civil war).

    If this process goes through, I’m sure the Obama admin will claim their tough stance calling for strikes is what resulted in the diplomatic solution. But we all know it was popular opposition to such strikes that actually bought Assad the time he needed to make his offer.

    Of course, if Assad isn’t serious we’re right back where we started with Obama having painted himself into a corner and nobody else being willing to bail him out.

  7. I love those faux intellectual poses by Obama.

    Obama? Cynical? J’amais! Non e possible!

  8. If the U.S. were to have an honest change of heart and policy on chemical weapons, would its history of cynicism make a difference?

    It may be hard to believe, and no one could be blamed for treating the announcement with skepticism, but if it were honest, it should be uncomplicated.

    Sadly, it is nearly impossible to find an honest word coming from ohr government. Except perhaps for Samantha Powers and Susan Rice. They really seem to believe the U.S. has a duty to prevent atrocities everywhere. The true believers can get you into the most trouble.

  9. You know who else had a cynical weapon policy?

    (my only Godwin of the day – I promise!)

    1. Wile E. Coyote?

      (my last Loony reference of the day – I promise).

    2. The Yooks and the Zooks from the Butter Battle Book?

  10. I wish the PTB were more cynical in this case.

  11. The never ending historical tit for tat tennis between the apologists for a militaristic socialist race state of the chosen and the followers of the only crappy desert religion more archaic on pointless than judaism consistently fails to answer the basic question: what the fuck does any of this have to do with the United States of America?

    1. We should be arming Zoroastrians against both sides.

  12. Chemical weapons are just an excuse used to justify to the people why the government is attacking another government.

  13. Great Power politics are cynical, film at 11.

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