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.