The storm has passed. The clouds looked purplish green and ominous for a while, but the threat of war with Syria seems to have dissipated without a single drop of rain. President Obama drew a line in the sand at the use of chemical weapons. Although the consequences of crossing that line initially seemed to promise military repercussions, in the end, diplomacy took the day, and CNN’s impressive graphic for the “Crisis in Syria” will suffer from underuse. The television news media has spent hours analyzing whether this peaceful resolution constitutes a loss or a win for the United States and President Obama. But the real question is why the line was drawn at the use of chemical weapons, and why that was a promise the United States felt compelled to stand by.
After the chemical warfare of the trenches of World War I, most countries stopped using chemical weapons, and militaries across the globe reallocated research time and money away from chemical weapon development. It was understood that “civilized” weapons should not include chemical weapon use. This understanding survived World War II, as the U.S. Department of State declared: “Chemical warfare should be abolished among nations, as abhorrent to civilization. It is a cruel, unfair and improper use of science. It is fraught with the gravest danger to noncombatants and demoralizes the better instincts of humanity.” Realistically, one would have expected Great Britain to use chemical weapons in World War II when doing so would have been strategically advantageous, but Great Britain stood by its “civilized” principles and stuck to less effective means. In fact, when, in a 1944 Memorandum to his service chiefs, Winston Churchill demanded military strategies be selected based on efficacy rather than always having “all the disadvantages of being the gentleman,” he was unsuccessful in convincing them to controvert the global norm against the use of chemical weapons.
Even the United States felt itself bound by the taboo. Despite public pressure to use chemical weapons against the Japanese during World War II and the significantly smaller risk of American casualties, the United States chose to forgo the use of chemical weapons. Even more tellingly, the U.S. did choose to implement a far more destructive option in the form of the atomic bomb. Why have an international norm against the use of chemical weapons, but no prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons? If one assumes that states have a vested interest in their own survival, one would expect a nuclear weapons ban to be beneficial for everyone. On a basic level, why is the indiscriminate killing of one’s own civilians, as in Syria, insufficient grounds for humanitarian intervention, but the use of chemical weapons opens the door to military action?
First, there’s an economic rationale for banning chemical weapons, but not nuclear weapons, and setting the bar for humanitarian intervention at the use of banned chemical weapons. Compared to nuclear weapons, chemical weapons are cheap to produce: A nuclear bomb can cost more than its weight in gold, and chemical weapons cost only $600 to produce mass casualties per square kilometer (according to data from the 1960s). Given the much lower cost of chemical weapon production, the technology is available to a wider array of countries and can, therefore pose a greater threat to powerful countries. In addition, the sheer physical cost of detonating a nuclear weapon means that those states that have nuclear weapon stockpiles can be more confident that their peers will not initiate nuclear weapon use without good reason. Unfortunately, while chemical weapons can produce horrific civilian casualties, they simply don’t present the same degree of apocalyptic threat that nuclear bombs do. The decision to deploy chemical weaponry is taken more lightly.
Second, there’s a psychological rationale for the global taboo on chemical weapons. The United States, Great Britain and France, as the victors in World War I and II, have internalized the horrors that can be inflicted by chemical warfare. The image of a soldier’s skin bubbling off of his face, combined with the unimaginable horrors of the gas chambers at Auschwitz, have instilled in these states an enduring aversion to chemical warfare. This aversion does not manifest in a ban on nuclear weapons because of the power dynamic and perverse trust mentioned earlier. Further, a negative psychological reaction to the use of chemical weapons explains why their usage on one’s own citizens constitutes sufficient grounds for breaching a state’s sovereignty.
Thus, although the storm has passed and there is no longer an imminent threat of war with Syria, the underlying ban on chemical weapons use is far from logical or rational and shouldn’t have been the American standard for intervention. Furthermore, Syria’s surrender and destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile doesn’t translate into the end of the crisis in Syria.
Joline Doedens is a second-year law student. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Joline a message @jydoedens.