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?”
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.
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.
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).