The chemical weapons taboo
You might be wondering why it is OK for Syrian President Bashar Assad to kill 100,000 people with guns and bombs, but it’s absolutely outrageous for him to kill 1,400 people with poison gas.
Is death really better when one is getting blown to smithereens by a cluster bomb, rather than suffocating from sarin? At least toxic gas doesn’t leave entire cities in ruins. Bridges and buildings are spared. And unlike a blast of artillery fire, nerve gas has an antidote.
So why are chemical weapons considered beyond the pale?
The answer traces back to the centuries-old effort to outlaw war’s worst atrocities, especially attacks on civilians, according to Edward Spiers, author of “A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons.”
‘’The argument is that chemical weapons are indiscriminate in their effects and will injure or incapacitate people, animals, and even plants that are in their path,” Spiers said. Chemical weapons can’t tell the difference between combatants and civilians. Children and old people are the most vulnerable to them.
As far back as the 18th century, poisoning wells in warfare was considered cowardly — and against the rules of gentlemanly killing. After World War I, when nearly 100,000 soldiers suffered the horrors of mustard gas, much of the world signed onto the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which banned countries from using chemical weapons first in a conflict. But countries retained the right to possess them and to retaliate if they were attacked first.
So John Kerry has a point when he says Assad broke a long-standing international taboo by using “weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all.”
But Kerry failed to mention that it took the United States half a century to ratify the Gevena Protocol. In the meantime, we dropped napalm on Japan, which killed more people than the atomic bomb. We dropped Agent Orange — a toxic defoliant — on Vietnam. During the Cold War, we stockpiled 523 tons of liquid VX and sarin, which are still stored today in leaky barrels in a Kentucky military warehouse.
Worst of all, in the 1980s, we continued to support Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, even when he gassed Iranian soldiers and villages almost daily in the Iraq-Iran war. Iran begged for international intervention, but no one cared, even after UN weapons inspectors documented the attacks.
By the time Saddam killed 5,000 people with sarin in the Iranian-held Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988, U.S. diplomats had been reporting smaller attacks for five years.
The Reagan administration didn’t want Saddam to use the gas. It warned him to stop. But at the end of the day, Iran was our enemy. We wanted Saddam to win.
We even helped Saddam cover up his crime. After Iraq’s planes dispersed poison from planes that flew so high that some blew back on Saddam’s own troops, Iraq accused Iran of using chemical weapons. According to Joost Hiltermann, author of “A Poisonous Affair,” U.S. intelligence agents helped keep that rumor alive.
‘’I think there was a lobby inside the U.S. intelligence community that wanted to play up Iranian culpability, even though there was no solid evidence,” Hiltermann said.
Being accused of using chemical weapons — after being attacked with chemical weapons for years — showed Iranians that “international laws are nothing but ink on paper,” Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of Iran’s parliament, declared bitterly at the time.
Fast forward to now. What’s so different? Well, for one thing, the world passed a new, tougher treaty in 1993. Americans ratified it and began destroying U.S. stockpiles of poisons. We are slated to be finished in 2021. Better late than never.
A handful of countries refused to sign the treaty, including Syria. That’s why Obama says Assad is violating international “norms,” not international laws. Syria never agreed to follow that law in the first place.
It is a noble goal to rid the world of chemical weapons. It is noble to try to force brutal dictators to live up to certain standard of civility. But for those standards to be real, we have to enforce them fairly, on behalf of our enemies as well as our allies.
John Kerry told Congress on Tuesday that the US must act because “if the world’s worst despots can flout with impunity prohibitions against the world’s worst weapons, then those prohibitions are just pieces of paper.”
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson some countries have already learned.
Farah Stockman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.