America – and Obama – must be ready to act alone in strike against Assad, Syria
President Obama's decision to seek congressional approval and global support for a strike against Syria is laudable. But the US – and Mr. Obama – might have to go it alone. Chemical weapons are in a terrible class by themselves. The world must maintain its taboo against them.
In the late 1980s, Saddam Hussein’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid explained how he was going to put down a Kurdish rebellion in northern Iraq. “I will kill all of them with chemical weapons,” boasted “Chemical Ali,” as he was later called. “Who is going to say anything? The international community?”Skip to next paragraph
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Between 2,000 and 5,000 Kurds died in chemical attacks in 1988, and – as Chemical Ali predicted – “the international community” did nothing to punish Iraq. And that’s precisely why it needs to move quickly against Bashar al-Assad, who has, according to a US assessment, deployed chemical weapons against his own people in Syria. For almost a century, the world has maintained a steadfast taboo against using such weapons. We can’t let up now.
I'm glad that President Obama decided to seek congressional approval before proceeding with a strike against Syria, which would give any such action more legitimacy at home. And I also admire his efforts to get the rest of the world behind a strike. But if that doesn't work, the US – and Mr. Obama, as commander in chief – might have to go it alone.
You may have read that Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany invented “nerve agents” of the kind that were used in Iraq – and, it seems, in Syria. What you might not know is that Hitler despised chemical weapons, consistently rejecting his aides’ appeals to use them on the battlefield.
It wasn’t just that he feared retaliation from Allied forces, which had developed such weapons as well. Hitler had been injured by mustard gas during World War I. Temporarily blinded, he was recovering in a military hospital when Germany surrendered in 1918.
The experience traumatized him for the rest of his life. Of course, none of that prevented him from using chemical weapons to murder Jews, gays, and political dissidents. And Hitler did authorize research on nerve agents, but only for defensive purposes. Nerve agents were much more paralyzing than mustard and chlorine gas, the most commonly used chemical weapons in World War I. And they didn’t have to be inhaled to be deadly; in the right concentrations, nerve agents can penetrate your skin and kill you.
That’s what researchers discovered after World War II, when the US and USSR engaged in a cold-war competition to develop the most lethal chemical weapons. American military experts projected that a Soviet chemical strike could inflict death tolls in the millions. In the event of such a strike, civil defense authorities advised, you should close the first-floor windows of your home and go upstairs; apparently nerve gasses hugged the ground instead of rising up.