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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 9/9/13

America's Tricky Relationship with Chemical Warfare

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The United States has awakened to the Syrian crisis and wants to help.   But you hear little from our leaders about the suffering of 6 million Syrians -- proportional to 80 million Americans -- who have fled their homes. The 2 million international refugees and 4.25 million internally displaced are becoming what United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called "a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions in recent history".   Instead, the chest-thumping, misleading speeches of the American war machine advocate for airstrikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad's use of toxic chemicals with which we have an on-again, off-again love affair.   We hear little of a Syrian pipeline Assad won't agree to, or Julian Assange's assertion that documents show we have been looking to interfere in Syria for several years. Instead, US leaders advocate action that will likely be incendiary or ineffective, with poor international and popular support, and no legal basis. Clearly playing the world's rogue cop is a relatively easy, high-profile role. But long term, challenging, collaborative work to provide funds, food, doctors, aid workers, and political leadership --like championing a resolution to refer Assad's actions to the International Criminal Court -- are more likely to achieve a lasting, positive legacy.

What specifically of unending chatter about the red line? First, killing breeds hatred regardless of techniques, as a classic scene from "The Princess Bride" teaches kids through the swashbuckling, Spanish fencer's chant: "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." (no clarification on weaponry needed). Are we to believe the Syrians' return to the brutal killing modes responsible for 99 percent of their dead represents "mission accomplished"?   Even more problematic is the shift-shaping propaganda machine, a la President Bush. Early American rationales for military action in Syria were numerous: strikes as part of a larger strategy, agreed to facts, an international coalition, international law, and the offense's legality. Now military strikes are rationalized mainly with the notably poor defense, "Because I said so."   The US account of the suburban Damascus attack and their estimate of 1,429 dead (the highest to date) isn't backed by intelligence available to other countries or our public, even Congress sees very little. Secretary of State John Kerry says only three "tyrants" have used chemical weapons, while ignoring four American presidents -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush --   who either assisted or used weapons of mass destruction.   Leaders talk of a longstanding international norm. But chemicals have killed and maimed on at least 10 occasions since 1925. Retaliatory, unilateral military action from outside actors has been illegal and rare.

A review of the major treaties governing the use of chemical warfare and the nations who have used them proves illustrative.

World War 1: Both Central Powers and Allies takes advantage of a new era of poison gases. Chlorine, phosgene, and most famously mustard gas terrify the military and civilians alike, although they are responsible for a small percentage of total deaths.

Geneva Protocol: The 1925 treaty broadly prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons. About two-thirds of the countries have signed on. The United States, which had an extensive chemical weapons program for decades, takes 50 years to ratify the protocol, choosing to sign it in 1975 rather than the more comprehensive Chemical Weapons Convention developed that year.

World War II:   Adolf Hitler uses gas chambers to kill Jews, Gypsies, and other groups. The tyrant, who was gassed in World War I, does not use chemical weapons in military attacks.

World War II:   America/ President Franklin Delano Roosevelt firebomb 67 Japanese cities using napalm (jellied gasoline) destroying half or more of 33 cities.   General Curtis LeMay who was responsible for the bombing, said that "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." (a violation of the Hague Conventions, among others).   "I think he's right," comments Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, in "The Fog of War".

America/President Franklin Delano Roosevelt drop two nuclear bombs that flatten Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Approximately 185,000 people are vaporized, crushed or burned to death immediately, while others are tormented by bone marrow syndrome, excessive diarrhea and vomiting, burns, and other torturous conditions before dying.   While these weapons operate by nuclear rather than chemical reactions, the International Court of Justice has stated using the weapons is clearly contrary to international military and humanitarian law.

The US has built 65,000 nuclear warheads in total; 7700 remain today. Excluding Russia, which holds 8500, the US arsenal is seven times that of all other nuclear powers combined.

Vietnam War:   America/President Lyndon Johnson uses 20 million gallons of herbicides and defoliants during the Vietnam War.   About half a million children suffer from severe physical or mental disabilities as a result of the highly toxic Agent Orange. About 3 million have been affected altogether. A joint Vietnamese-US panel recommended in 2010 the US government, corporations and other donors spend $300 million to compensate Vietnamese victims and clean up their ecosystems. So far, the US government has not pledged such compensation. Similarly, many Congressmen appalled by the Syrian attack have failed to champion the House's "Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act" introduced three months ago.

Chemical Weapons Convention: The 1975 international treaty prohibits the use and production of chemical weapons and sets a timetable for their destruction. To date, seven countries in the world, including Israel and Syria, have either not signed or not ratified it. The United States signed the treaty in 1997, basically gutting its provisions through limits. The US also missed the deadlines established in the convention for destroying the vast majority of their chemical weapons. Needless to say, the treaty does not allow military force to be taken in case of noncompliance.

Side note on international treaties: Other countries could not legally bomb the US for violating treaties that it has not ratified (or has unsigned) that are agreed to by the vast majority of the world. A few include the Convention of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Yet action without United Nations Security Council approval would violate international law.

Iraq-Iran War: Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush sell Saddam Hussein toxic poisons and biological viruses which Iraq uses in the Iraq-Iran War. The American government knows and approves of this use. In fact, the Reagan administration provides intelligence to Iraq to identify Iranian targets for chemical warfare.   Additionally, Saddam Hussein uses chemical weapons against the Kurdish people in 1987.

Gulf and Iraq Wars: America/George Bush uses white phosphorus in Fallujah, Iraq, reportedly melting the skin of Iraqis and causing a higher incidence of birth defects, cancer, leukemia, and infant mortality than after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The United States also used weapons and munitions containing mildly radioactive and toxic depleted uranium in both the Gulf and Iraq Wars, causing cancer and birth defects, while leaving toxic land behind for the Iraqi citizens to live in.

Israel-Palestine Conflict: Israel uses the chemical white phosphorus in Gaza in the 2008-2009 war. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch found white phosphorus was used in civilian areas, inflicting major injuries and chemical burns. Israel initially denied the chemical was used, but later admitted to it.

Syrian Civil War: Assad forces are widely believed to have used chemical weapons on August 21. The report from a United Nations inspection is an estimated two weeks away. Initial reports suggest the chemicals were obtained legally from Britain.

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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.
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