Why are chemical weapons the “red line” of intervention?

Just over a year ago at a White House press conference, American President Barrack Obama stated that:

a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” the president said a year ago last week. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

Now that the use of chemical weapons has come up many feel that the president has trapped himself into responding. But the original comment does not promise military intervention and a question some journalists are asking is why were chemical weapons the ‘red line’ to begin with?

UN Photo/Marco Castro

Over 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began over two years ago with bullets and bombs. Conventional weapons are just as capable of mass death as chemical ones so why this line in the sand?

Obama defended this distinction to CNN last week:

“When you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale… that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.”

Phrases such as “National interests”, “protect our allies” and  especially “weapons of mass destruction” cannot help but call some of Bush’s rhetoric to mind.

But Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official argues that chemical attacks if proven, must be taken more seriously than conventional attacks because chemical agents disperse to affect large numbers of people and “can produce horror for a lifetime.” He goes on to say that “it’s a slippery slope”, if a chemical weapons attack goes unchecked, what about some other form of weapon of mass destruction – a biological or nuclear attack?

But it can hardly be said that cluster munition or drone strikes are somehow less devastating or that they could not just as easily lead to weapons escalation.

Arguments could equally be made that intervention increases the likelihood of retaliation. Al Jazeera’s White House correspondent, Patty Culhane, questions the Obama administration’s assumptions. She writes:

“The administration says the US National Security is threatened by the possibility that the Assad regime will use chemical weapons on allies or US bases – do you have any evidence that they plan to take that step? You’ve warned chemical weapons could be given to “terrorist groups that would harm the US” – how does a military intervention make that less likely and not more?”

The US are not the only country saber rattling in the direction of Syria. British PM David Cameron however lost his parliamentary vote on military intervention. France is also threatening a military role. French PM Jean-Marc Ayrault said “France is determined to punish use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.”

The Arab League however issued a statement that they believed that no intervention should take place that is not UN led.

A question that should also be asked at this point is whether a military intervention by US or France or any nation’s army would reduce the suffering of the people of Syria or even reduce the risk of chemical weapons being used again.

Also another question that is not being ask is what would the US government do if it was discovered that the rebels were responsible? Will the US military still intervene in the country? Will they intervene on behalf of the government?

That seems unlikely.

“There are few things more bizarre than watching people advocate that another country be bombed even while acknowledging that it will achieve no good outcomes other than safeguarding the “credibility” of those doing the bombing. Relatedly, it’s hard to imagine a more potent sign of a weak, declining empire than having one’s national “credibility” depend upon periodically bombing other countries.”
   —  Glenn Greenwald
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