Obama’s Chemical Weapons ‘Red Line’ Is Even More Propaganda Than You Think

John Glaser, April 30, 2013


When the news about chemical weapons use in Syria hit the headlines again last week, I wrote that the whole debate on the issue was bogus. I argued that the alleged use of chemical weapons didn’t change the fact that the administration sees war in Syria as too costly and that, in any case, chemical weapons aren’t any different from the conventional military means that have already killed tens of thousands.

Over at Foreign Affairs, John Mueller argues Obama should “erase the red line.” He explains that not only is the chemical weapons “red line” bogus in the way I argued last week, but that the history of how chemical weapons occupied a special place in the international psyche is filled with as much war propaganda as Obama’s red line position.

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.

As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. After the war, some military analysts such as Basil Liddell Hart came to believe that chemical warfare was comparatively humane — these weapons could incapacitate troops without killing many.

But that view lost out to the one that the British propagandists had put forward — that chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and must, therefore, be banned. For the most part, the militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons. As the official British history of the war concludes (in a footnote), gas “made war uncomfortable … to no purpose.”

Mueller also argues, as I did last week, that fears that the administration will use this news about chemical weapons to justify going to war in Syria “are probably misplaced.” The administration, and the military establishment, knows there is no viable opposition for a post-Assad Syria, any limited intervention would be vulnerable to mission creep and probably end up requiring boots on the ground and considerable resources in blood and treasure. A new US war could generate a descent into sectarian conflict on the order of post-Saddam Iraq and would spark a new jihadist cause in the broader Middle East, and potentially a regional war between states.

It’s worth noting that the media hype over the chemical weapons allegations distort the actual intelligence. According to one intelligence official speaking to McClatchy newspapers, there is “low or moderate confidence” that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.

But all you can hear on cable news is that Obama’s failure to invade Syria now that chemical weapons have allegedly, we think been used hurts “American credibility.” The word credibility here is instructive. What they mean is that unless the whole world fears US violence and aggression, it hurts the national interest.

As Daniel Larison has noted today at The American Conservative, going to war for “credibility” is foolish.

  • Richard Steven Hack

    Once again, Glaser doesn't get it.

    Just like an Israeli attack on Iran not being able to stop Iran's nuclear program is irrelevant – because the REAL goal of such an attack is to drag the US into a war with Iran – the REAL goal of a US attack on Syria is not to overthrow Assad, but to degrade Syria's military so it can not be an effective actor in an Iran war.

    So there will be no "mission creep" or "boots on the ground". The attack will be an air war exactly comparable, but more extensive than, the one on Libya. Any "boots on the ground" will be provided by Israel – and possibly Turkey.

    The US military knows this, so they aren't concerned. Their only concern is how much effort it will take to degrade Syria's air defenses so they can hit Syria's missile arsenals. Considering that they will likely have the US, NATO, Israel and probably Turkey all conducting air strikes, I'd say that is not a serious concern. A properly planned air campaign that takes out sections of the Syrian air defenses and works its way in over time will handle it nicely.

    Since the Syrian insurgents are capturing numerous Syrian air bases – ostensibly to reduce Syrian air strikes against them, but really to lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention – Syria resources will be significantly degraded even before the intervention.

    • MoT

      Or is the act of attacking the bases, clearly with US trained and armed "rebels", to knock out SAM systems manned by Russians? Why wouldn't they reinforce these systems with their own boots on the ground? I'd love to see the Ruskies pour materiale and men into Syria and see the West piss their pants. Then we'd see just how far they'd be willing to go to twist the bears nose.

  • Ben_C

    Who has the clear 'interest' and 'incentive' to use any "chemicical weapons"?



    Yet Glaser doesn't even mention this, as Master Obama has spoken…

    • agfilbin

      Why should Glaser – or anyone else – repeat claims from the Syria Tribune, which is a Syrian government news outlet? How would that be any smarter than taking the rebels at their word? Of course, you're silly enough to think this is out of deference to "Master" Obama, rather than simpl journalistic caution. So why am I asking YOU?

      • Ben_C

        I don't need to follow gossip. I asked a simple question about "interests" and "incentives"… You have not answered, and neither has Glaser…

        Additionally, the so-called "rebels" posted the video on the internet themselves. Do you not believe it? Or are you a crazy 'conspiracy theorist' like Glaser… Oh yes…according to Glaser, Assad used Chemical WMDs on a "limited scale" as Master Obama told him…

  • mojo

    All that is is repeating of what is a gospel with a political interest reserved for certain political movements and Johan so as Ditz are just following the path…, look: USA Italy and other European military bases are ready to invade Syria.., they all waiting for orders from the chief.., Israel is ready to follow up so as Jordanian and that Turkish NATO member government.., they all have indicated and cooperating by all means to weaken the Syrian people struggle to defeat exported terrorists to their country.., to divid more of nations in Middle East.., why do you think they call it sectarian war instead of proxy war to get into Iraq and Iran.., why do you think that sunnies are at war with shi'a.., why do you think Kurdistan is trying to divid itself from Iraq.., why do you think that USA is the main supporter so is English of true tyrants in Middle East while forgetting democracy at home.., why do you think that USA and EU kissing the hands of these tyrants.., because non of them are for democratizing any part of Middle East, because their politics is not based on a functioning democracy but rather a draconian politics both in terms of social politics and their vulture capitalism economics. You don't have any answer.., ask Hillary Clinton when she hade a meeting with Saudis, the French, the English, the Israelis and rest if the gang of what is Neo fascism.

  • http://contraviewing.blogspot.com contraviews

    It would most certainly not in Syria's interest to use chemical weapons and invite US/NATO/Israel' intervention. That would be military and political suicide for the government. There have been – although unconfirmed – reports that the Syrian army is gaining grounds. Israel/Obama are apparently frustrated about the fact that their 'proxy' forces are not making any headway. Why would the Syrian military use chemical weapons in such a limited and clumsy way ?

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  • mojo

    One more thing.., those whom are involved in this war.., they all know by now that this war is lost.., that this war is about the Syrian people defending their country by not wanting to become another slaves to Saudis, Qatari, British, USA or French, wanting to remain independent for ever. So they will do anything and everything for this war to continue.., don't think for a minute that either leaders of any regime involved in this war are innocent,, they play innocence rule of innocence.., but they are not.., that's including Obama. This man had the democratic majority at both houses and could have kept one of his promises.., non has been…, or becoming true.

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