Why is killing women and children with chemical weapons more reprehensible morally than doing so with bombs and bullets? Either way, they end up dead. A civilian can die as painfully from shrapnel wounds as from a nerve agent. Why does a chemical attack initiate a western military reprisal and conventional arms, which have killed far more people in Syria since 2011, just more diplomatic hand-wringing?
Stephen Walt posed this question. He surely has a point. How Assad puts down the insurrection he faces should not alter US calculations of its own national interests.
Winston Churchill made a similar point in both world wars. This was a departmental minute on May 12, 1919, from the War Office.
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
In World War Two:
PRIME MINISTER’S PERSONAL MINUTE
Serial No. D. 217/4
10 Downing Street, Whitehall
GENERAL ISMAY FOR C.O.S. COMMITTEE
I want you to think very seriously over this question of poison gas. I would not use it unless it could be shown either that (a) it was life or death for us, or (b) that it would shorten the war by a year.
It is absurd to consider morality on this topic when everybody used it in the last war without a word of complaint from the moralists or the Church. On the other hand, in the last war bombing of open cities was regarded as forbidden. Now everybody does it as a matter of course. It is simply a question of fashion changing as she does between long and short skirts for women…
Winston Churchill, 6.7.44
The method by which civilians are killed has long obscured the fact of their dying. Nuclear weapons have become taboo though at least as many people died in the conventional bombing of Tokyo than in the atomic attack on Hiroshima.
Indeed, the use of nuclear weapons probably saved lives that would have been lost had World War II been fought to a conclusion using only conventional arms.
Assad could continue to target opponents with supposedly morally acceptable weapons and ‘the international community’ would remain quiescent.
Obama is reacting, albeit cautiously, not because inaction will facilitate Russo-Chinese interests but because Assad has been especially reprehensible. George W. Bush was widely and often wildly derided for predicating his invasion of Iraq in 2003 on Saddam’s dodgy WMD arsenal. Did he have one? Did he not? Let’s be sure either way and remove him.
Saddam’s use of poison gas against the inhabitants of Halabja was cited in the build up to war as a reason to remove him.
Obama, assuming he authorises attacks on Damascus in some form, is using a similar WMD pretext but on the basis of a much more constrained use of them.
Saddam gassed several thousand Kurds. He was the subject of eighteen UN Security Council resolutions. He invaded Iran for little more than vainglory - leading to the death of some one million Iranians and Iraqis, many of them teenagers. And yet war against him was denounced as premature and without a causus belli.
President Obama’s pretext is supposedly more humanitarian, though very late given its asserted inspiration. Saddam had spent at least 12 years (1991-2003) destroying his opponents and the good liberals of New York, London and Melbourne turned out to protest his proposed removal.
Some of the largest demonstrations in world history contended for the maintenance of one of the world’s worst regimes.
If Obama and Cameron do succeed in igniting some kind of coalition of the willing in order to punish Assad for crimes mild compared to Saddam Hussein the reaction is likely to be more muted.
And yet, Obama is set to continue a trend begun by his predecessors. Bush Sr, Clinton and Bush Jr all made war on governments they accused of war crimes against Muslim populations.
Kuwait 1991, Kosovo 1999, Iraq 2003, Libya 2011 and Syria 2013 have a common cause and represent the continuity of US foreign policy.