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.
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But nobody really understood how lethal they could be. In 1953, a 20-year-old British soldier died when experimenters put 20 drops of sarin – the most common nerve agent at the time – on his arm. He went deaf and began convulsing violently; the sarin had blocked the flow of air to his lungs.Skip to next paragraph
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The soldier volunteered for the study after seeing an advertisement promising participants 15 shillings. He planned to use the money to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend.
In the 1960s, the United States produced 5,000 tons of a new nerve agent, called VX. According to its advocates, it could deter the enemy without forcing the US to resort to all-out nuclear warfare. But President Richard M. Nixon suspended the research and manufacture of chemical weapons in 1969. “Mankind already carries in its own hands too many seeds of its own destruction,” Nixon declared.
In the era of détente, both superpowers signed treaties renouncing chemical weapons and called on other countries to do the same. But they also turned a blind eye to atrocities by their own clients. When Egypt used chemical weapons against Yemen in the 1960s, the Soviets kept quiet – just like they are now, while their ally in Syria gasses his foes. Ditto for the US in the late 1980s, when it shared tactical intelligence with the Iraqis even as Saddam and his henchmen were using chemicals to kill Iranians and Kurds.
And that was a huge mistake, which America should never make again. After the Iraqi attacks, predictably enough, Iran moved to develop its own chemical weapons; they were “the poor man’s atomic bomb,” as Iranian future president Ali Rafsanjani argued.
Syria also built several chemical weapons production plants in the late 1980s. “It is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves,” Bashar al-Assad told an interviewer in 2004. “It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world, and they can be obtained at any time.”
He was right, of course. And that’s why the international community needs to make sure that nobody uses them, at any time. Perhaps it should wait until it has more proof that Assad unleashed chemical weapons in Syria. But once the world has this proof, it needs to punish Assad firmly – with conventional weapons, of course, not chemical ones.
Obama’s decision to pursue congressional as well as international approval for a strike against Syria is right on target. But if his efforts fall wide of the mark, he might have to act alone. Someone needs to take on Assad, or a frayed global norm will erode even further. And America is still the strongest country on the globe.
“The war [with Iraq] taught us that international laws are only drops of ink on paper,” Iran's Ali Rafsanjani said in 1988. If we want to make them more than that, we must call Assad to account. Anything less will make us as cowardly as he is.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).