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article imageOp-Ed: Obama's speech on Syria and weapons of mass destruction

By Ken Hanly     Sep 11, 2013 in World
Washington - Barack Obama's speech on Syria last night (September 10) repeated many of the same arguments that he and his team have been using in the media blitz to convince the American public to support Obama's plan to punish Assad for his alleged use of chemical we
Most of Obama's speech is about his reasons for wishing to respond militarily to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. The final sections mention the Russian suggestion that Assad's chemical weapons be placed under international control. Obama has put off a vote on the strike authorization resolution while diplomatic moves are ongoing. The speech is filled with appeals to emotion and to moral principles while painting Assad in the blackest of terms. The full text of Obama's speech can be found here.
Obama pictures himself as reluctant to intervene in the Syrian civil war even though as he points out Assad aggressively repressed opponents to his regime resulting in a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people by now and displaced millions more. But the situation changed when his "red line" was crossed: "The situation profoundly changed, though, on Aug. 21st, when Assad's government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war. "
Compare this sickening picture that everyone will find revolting with another, the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day. The Hiroshima prefecture health department estimated that, of the people who died on the day of the explosion, 60% died from flash or flame burns, 30% from falling debris and 10% from other causes. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness. In a US estimate of the total immediate and short term cause of death, 15–20% died from radiation sickness, 20–30% from burns, and 50–60% from other injuries, compounded by illness. In both cities, most of the dead were civilians, although Hiroshima had a sizeable garrison. In these two attacks the casualties total more than all the casualties in the Syrian conflict so far caused by both sides. As in the gas attack the victims were targeted indiscriminately, men, women and children. The Obama figure of over a thousand killed in the alleged Assad attack pales by comparison. Of course two war crimes do not make either any less a war crime but it does show that the US hardly can claim the stature of a moral exemplar when it comes to weapons of mass destruction or even for chemical weapons. Consider the response of the US when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against his own people during the Iran Iraq war: " By 1983, it had also become evident that Iraq was using chemical weapons in its war with Iran, but the U.S. nevertheless removed the country from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in order to step up support for its war effort. In December of that year, President Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld, who was later Secretary of Defense under the Bush administration, for a second time to Iraq to reassure Saddam Hussein that the U.S. would continue to back him despite his use of chemical weapons. " In fact the US continued to help Hussein with intelligence. Of course after Hussein became an enemy of the US the gas attack became a moral issue and was used to demonize him. This shows that the role moral discourse plays in discussions of US policy has really nothing to do with the ordinary use of such discourse except insofar as it is able to sway feelings in favor of the US and against its enemies. In short it is a form of psychological warfare used to persuade the American public to favor government policies.
Even on chemical weapons the US itself is in contravention of international agreements it signed: In 1997 the US agreed to decommission the 31,000 tonnes of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other agents it possessed within 10 years. In 2007 it requested the maximum extension of the deadline permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention – five years. Again it failed to keep its promise, and in 2012 it claimed they would be gone by 2021. Russia yesterday urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control. Perhaps it should press the US to do the same.
While Obama stresses that he wants to enforce international norms on chemical weapons the Clinton administration had a law passed forbidding international weapons inspectors from taking samples of chemicals in the US: In 1998 the Clinton administration pushed a law through Congress which forbade international weapons inspectors from taking samples of chemicals in the US and allowed the president to refuse unannounced inspections. In 2002 the Bush government forced the sacking of José Maurício Bustani, the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. He had committed two unforgivable crimes: seeking a rigorous inspection of US facilities; and pressing Saddam Hussein to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, to help prevent the war George Bush was itching to wage
Of course the US used millions of gallons of chemical weapons, especially agent orange in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, along with cluster bombs that still regularly explode in areas where they have been dropped. The moral strategy in Syria would be to spend more funds on humanitarian aid and to work for a diplomatic solution. There is hope too in the proposal to bring Assad's chemical weapons under international control. If the US and its allies do not antagonize the Russians but work out a resolution jointly a diplomatic solution to at least the chemical weapons issue seems possible because it is in the interests of Assad, Russia, the US and its allies.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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