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On Drawing the Line at Chemical Weapons

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated today what President Obama had said earlier, announcing while in Prague that any use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad is “a red line for the United States.” She went on to issue a not-so-veiled threat: “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action.”

On one level this is unobjectionable. Chemicals are a terrible weapon, a fact widely recognized since their widespread use in World War I. The Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria has not signed up) is intended to ban their possession. Their very awfulness–combined with their limited utility (gas, after all, has a way of wafting back to one’s own lines)–has limited their use in warfare over the past hundred years. So it makes sense that Obama and Clinton are making clear their abhorrence of this weapon and signaling stern consequences if it is employed.

But Syrian civilians under fire from their own regime must be wondering, if news of the secretary of state’s pronouncement reaches them, why it’s OK for Assad to kill them with bombs, artillery shells, and bullets–but not with chemicals. Granted, neither Obama nor Clinton has said that the killing currently being undertaken by the Syrian regime is acceptable. Quite the opposite: Both president and secretary of state have often voiced their condemnation of the regime’s tactics and called for its overthrow. But they have never threatened to respond with force even as Assad’s goons were slaughtering tens of thousands of their own people.

Perhaps one could argue that the use of chemical weapons presents a strategic threat to the United States in a way that the mere killing of innocent Syrians by lower-tech means does not. But that’s not the case. What does present a threat to us is if those chemical weapons are moved out of the country and fall into the hands of groups that may use them against us or our allies. Their use against Syrian civilians is primarily a moral issue–or perhaps more rightly an issue of moral etiquette, because we are more horrified when a child is killed by gas than by bullets. But to the dead child the difference between the two is inconsequential.

I am not objecting to the tough stance the administration is taking on chemical weapons use by the Syrian regime. I just wish its outrage–combined with the willingness to act–extended to all the other horrifying and reprehensible things that Bashar Assad is doing.



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