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Don't Worry About Chemical Weapons Becoming the New Norm

Given that the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons—or perhaps its latest use of chemical weapons—has been the particular atrocity that is likely going to lead the United States to war, the logic behind this rationale is worth exploring. My friend and colleague John Judis, in a piece titled "Obama's Biggest Gamble," explains the risks of President Barack Obama's decision to seek congressional authorization. He concludes by writing: 

So who is to act if not the United States? Who will enforce the "red line" on chemical weapons? One can dream about the revival of the United Nations or about a new international organization to displace it, but that prospect is decades away. If the United States cannot act—or if it can't mount a credible threat in lieu of acting—then the world as it now exists is unlikely to coalesce into a new international order. More likely it will descend into a Hobbesian chaos. 

Meanwhile, in The New Yorker, Steve Coll lays out the reluctant case for action, which he also bases on the use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces. This is Coll's historical analysis: 

Saddam saw great value in chemical arms during the nineteen-eighties, and his twisted logic bears examination in the light of Syria’s deteriorating conflict. Saddam first used gas bombs to thwart Iran’s zealous swarms of "human wave" infantry. Chemical terror broke the will of young Iranian volunteers, a lesson that informed [the] subsequent Kurdish campaign. The Reagan Administration’s decision to tolerate Saddam’s depravities proved to be a colossal moral failure and strategic mistake; it encouraged Saddam’s aggression and internal repression, and it allowed Iraq to demonstrate to future dictators the tactical value of chemical warfare.

The consequences of similar passivity in Syria now are unknowable.

If I am reading Coll correctly, his argument is as follows: twenty-five years ago, Saddam used chemical weapons against both Iran and his own people. In the first case, the world did nothing (while America actually aided him), and in the second case America and the international community decided against retaliatory action. Then, for the quarter-century before Assad's crimes, there were no major uses of chemical weapons. 

I suppose one could argue that Assad would not have used chemical weapons if the United States had acted against Saddam in 1988, but the general lack of chemical weapons use over the past 25 years is a sign that the taboo against their deployment is rather robust, even absent military intervention by the United States.

To argue that we should act in Syria because of the use of chemical weapons is to assume that other cornered dictators—the worst of the worst—will not use them in the future because the United States entered into conflict with Syria. Even if one assumes that brutal strongmen faced with extinction can be dissuaded from using these horrible weapons, is anyone going to take the lesson from a (limited) American campaign, with weak international support, that chemical weapons can never be used? I doubt it.

What seems more likely is that people will come to the conclusion that America will act against the users of these weapons when it already doesn't like the regime. This is not necessarily a bad lesson—America dislikes some pretty rotten regimes. But the idea that going to war in Syria will massively alter international norms seems pretty weak. Does anyone think if Saudi Arabia, say, develops and uses chemical weapons to put down a revolt a decade from now that the United States would go to war? Of course not. (Hypocrisy is not a reason to avoid action, but massive hypocrisy does mean the messages and signals a country thinks it is sending tend to be muddled.) It's possible that regimes we dislike will hesitate before using these weapons, although that too seems unlikely if those regimes face an existential threat. The possible benefit—i.e. the range of possible bad actors that would be dissuaded by a limited war in Syria—seems awfully small.

Judis's piece, meanwhile, doesn't really explain why the world did not enter into "Hobbesian chaos" when Iraq used chemical weapons in the 1980s, or when the United States ignored genocide and human rights violations all over the world, as it did for decades (and, by necessity, continues to do). Aggressive American foreign policy in the first half of the previous decade didn't deter genocide in Sudan, or Assad's rampage in Syria, or an Iranian crackdown on dissent. I don't quite see why this particular act of American passivity will bring the international order down.

A number of commentators have wondered, specifically, about the message that will be sent to Iran if the United States does not act. (The differing stances taken by the American government towards nuclear weapons in Iran and Pakistan, by the way, provide a similar lesson to would-be proliferators: we are not in favor of blanket nonproliferation, just nonproliferation for countries we do not like.) I suppose it is possible that Iran will see our lack of action as a sign of weakness and speed up its development of weapons. But, as many neoconservatives have been arguing (convincingly, I think) for years now, almost nothing short of force will dissuade Iran from acquiring nukes, largely because the country sees developing a nuclear capacity as being in its self-interest. That's one reason why some of the concern out of Israel makes little sense, considering that hawkish Israelis have been warning for a decade that only force will work with Iran. Now, all of a sudden, American weakness will mean the mullahs get less risk-averse!

These caveats do not mean that acting in Syria is a mistake, especially if America could really alter the humanitarian situation on the ground. And it is certainly possible that attacking Assad will deter him from using chemical weapons on a much larger scale. But if we are going to act to enforce international norms, and to "send signals," we should be more confident about what signals we are actually sending, and be certain that those signals will have a big impact on future behavior. 

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.