The West's Chemical Weapons Hypocrisy

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Barack Obama, foreign policy, Syria, Juan Cole, Truthdig, United States

Juan R.I. Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.

The odd discourse in Washington around President Barack Obama’s determination to bomb Syria over the country’s use of chemical weapons assumes a moral superiority on the part of the United States and its allies on this issue that can only astonish anyone who knows the history. At the same time, the most propagandistic allegations are being made about Iran. The creation of a fetish around some sorts of weapons (i.e., chemical ones) takes the focus off others that are just as deadly to innocents. The U.S. has had a checkered history in the use of unconventional arms, and is still among the most dedicated to retaining the ability to make, stockpile and use weapons that indiscriminately kill innocent noncombatants.

The British government as recently as 2012 licensed its firms to sell chemical agents that can be used as poison gas precursors to the Baath government of Syria. Although critics of Prime Minister David Cameron used phrases such as “astonishingly lax” to describe British government policy in this regard, it seems clear that Western governments value profits over morality when it comes to providing such material to seedy dictatorships. Most of Syria’s chemical weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” according to security information provider Russia may have played a later role, though I find Western charges of Iranian involvement unlikely for reasons I’ll get to later.

Nor are U.S. hands clean with regard to chemical weapons use by allies. In the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988, the Baath regime of Saddam Hussein deployed chemical weapons against Iranian troops at the front. Iran had a three-to-one manpower advantage over Iraq, and Hussein sought to level the playing field with gas. Notoriously, his regime also deployed poison gas against separatist Iraqi Kurds, whom he accused of allying with the enemy, Iran, during wartime. As I showed in the early days of Truthdig, the Reagan administration knew about the chemical weapons use. It nevertheless sought an alliance with the Iraqi government via Donald Rumsfeld, then-Reagan’s special envoy to the Middle East. High administration officials deflected Iran’s complaint against Iraq at the United Nations Security Council. The United States did not just ignore Iraqi use of gas. It actively protected Baghdad from international sanctions for it. At the same time, the Reagan administration licensed U.S. firms to provide deadly agents such as anthrax to Saddam Hussein. At the very least, President Obama should acknowledge the Reagan administration’s actions and apologize for them to the people of Iran (where many veterans still suffer from burned lungs) before he strikes an outraged pose toward Syria and Russia. The U.S. has committed to destroying its own once-extensive arsenal of chemical weapons, but 10 percent remain and their final disposal keeps slipping into the next decade....

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