On April 6, Donald Trump initiated his first war, by launching dozens of cruise missiles against the Syrian regime, following its use of chemical weapons. U.S. officials have offered a variety of motives for the use of force—but many of them aren’t compelling. First of all, there’s the need to defend American credibility when opponents cross a red line. This may help to explain why the United States launched cruise missiles, but not why the red line was originally drawn around the use of chemical weapons. In addition, Trump claimed that Syria had “violated its obligations” under the Chemical Weapons Convention. But he’s shown little interest before in the value of global legal structures. Trump also said the attack might kick start a peace process: “I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” But the American strike has only widened divisions with Russia and Iran.
Perhaps the most powerful argument for the attack is the unique horror of chemical weapons. Trump claimed that chemical weapons are “very barbaric” particularly when employed against a “child of God.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that a chemical strike is the worst possible act of war: “You had someone as despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.” (Given the employment of gas chambers in the Holocaust, Spicer later apologized for a misplaced analogy.)
But are chemical weapons really uniquely horrific? Using sarin nerve gas against innocent civilians is undoubtedly evil. But chemical weapons are not exceptionally terrible in the scale of suffering. In Syria, for every civilian murdered in a chemical attack, hundreds have been killed by conventional means. Neither are chemical weapons uniquely brutal in the manner of death. Asphyxiation by gas is truly horrifying—as is being lacerated by shells or tortured to death in Bashar al-Assad’s gulag archipelago.
The focus on the means of killing, rather than the amount of killing, can seem arbitrary. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Hutu militias killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus with machetes and small arms. Let’s imagine that the militias followed this up by murdering a further 80 Tutsis in a chemical weapons attack. It would be absurd if the international community ignored the genocide, and then intervened after the chemical strike.
The core underlying reason for the U.S. air strike is rarely if ever discussed in public: upholding the norm against chemical weapons gives the United States a strategic edge, by helping the U.S. military win wars.
U.S. officials want to keep warfare limited to a traditional model where one army fights another army on a clear battlefield, and everyone wears uniforms. The reason is that the United States will almost always emerge victorious. Ask Mexico, the Confederacy, Spain, Germany, Japan, Grenada, Panama, or Iraq, what it’s like to fight a straight up conventional war against the U.S. military. Today, Washington is pouring billions of dollars into big-ticket hardware like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which further entrenches America’s advantage in conventional fighting.
The United States has an interest in shaping global norms so that tactics and technologies that fit the traditional model are viewed as “good war” or morally acceptable. This includes bombing, shelling, and shooting. Just last week, the United States dropped “the mother of all bombs,” or the 21,000-pound Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb, on an ISIS position in Afghanistan.
At first glance, drones might seem like a morally dubious technology. Hundreds of civilians have died as a result of U.S. drone strikes around the world. Insurgent groups like Hezbollah have begun to use primitive drones. Terrorists could easily employ drones to deliver bombs. One might think that Western countries would push for some kind of international convention to prohibit or limit their use. But the U.S. military finds drones extremely useful. And so, there’s barely a squeak from official Washington about the ethics of flying robots of death.
By contrast, other tactics and technologies that deviate from the conventional war template are treated as “bad war” or illegitimate. This includes anything that might level the playing field or give weaker actors a fighting chance, like terrorism or insurgency.
Which brings us to chemical weapons. The United States has an interest in preventing the use of chemical weapons. The U.S. military doesn’t need these tools in the same way it needs drones. Chemical weapons would complicate life in wartime for American soldiers, who would have to carry protective gear. Chemical weapons also have an undoubted psychological impact that terrorists and rogue states could utilize.
Therefore, the United States and other powerful actors cultivate the image of chemical weapons as the epitome of barbarism. Boosting the perceived evil, chemical weapons are lumped in with nuclear and biological weapons in the famed “weapons of mass destruction” category—even though nuclear weapons are vastly more dangerous.
A good test of whether the chemical weapons taboo is really about ethics or interests is to ask how the United States would respond if an ally used these weapons. Fortunately—or unfortunately—such a test exists. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein was viewed as a secular sentinel holding back radical theocratic Iran. When Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988, killing 6,800 civilians, the United States barely even protested. Washington knew that Saddam was to blame, but U.S. diplomats were nevertheless instructed to say that Iran was partly responsible. Washington pushed a UN Security Council resolution that muddied the waters by calling on both Iraq and Iran “to refrain from the future use of chemical weapons.”
Sometimes, the United States moves tactics from the bad war box to the good war box. Traditionally, the assassination of foreign leaders was held to be morally reprehensible. In 1938, the British military attaché in Berlin suggested assassinating Adolf Hitler to avert a European war, but London rejected the plot as “unsportsmanlike.” In the 1970s, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order renouncing assassination.
The norm against assassination doesn’t make a lot of inherent sense. If you can invade another country and destroy its military, why can’t you kill the enemy leader and perhaps avoid a war entirely? In a detailed study of the norm against assassination, Ward Thomas found that the taboo emerged in the 17th century because it served the interests of powerful countries by placing their leaders off-limits from personal attack.
Interestingly, today, the norm against assassination has significantly weakened because of the strategic need to target adversaries in the war on terror—like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed in 2006 in a U.S. air strike.
In the future, the chemical weapons taboo could follow a similar trajectory. What if the United States decided it needed to use chemical weapons? What if Washington developed, say, a powerful chemical sleep agent that could incapacitate enemies without killing them, and which promised to be incredibly useful on the battlefield? U.S. officials would change their tune overnight on the ethics of chemical weapons. They’re not all bad.
Norms and interests are woven together in complex ways. Of course, the inherent evil of an act matters, for example, whether civilians are targeted, and the extent of the carnage. Many officials in the Trump administration feel genuine horror at Assad’s actions. But norms are often underpinned by interests. When powerful countries benefit, it gives space for the norm to grow.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the United States pursuing its strategic interests. International politics is a contact sport. No one else can be relied upon to protect America. And other countries certainly safeguard their interests. The norm against chemical weapons might still be valuable even if it’s convenient for Washington.
But U.S. officials tend not to admit the strategic basis for the chemical weapons taboo, for obvious reasons. Instead, they justify their actions based on fighting evil. One danger is that Washington could get trapped in a broader conflict. If America is acting to stop barbarism in Syria, there’s plenty to go around. And the United States also opens itself up to the charge of hypocrisy. After all, Trump banned every Syrian child of God from taking refuge in the American ark.