With the United States Congress set to debate and deliberate over an attack on Syria over the use of chemical weapons, many people are raising the issue of chemical weapons by Americans themselves. While chemical weapons are now outlawed under international law, the United States and its allies have been accused of using and supporting the use of chemical weapons. What do these accusations center around, and what do they mean in regards to the current situation?
The American government has admitted to using chemical weapons as recently as Gulf War II when white phosphorus was used in Iraq. White phosphorus is a highly volatile incendiary. The legal status of white phosphorus is not as clearly outlined as chemical weapons such as sarin. While sarin is outright banned, international law would seem to suggest that incendiaries can be used against military targets.
Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction
Perhaps the most frequently cited support of chemical weapons has been the use of the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1980's against Iran, and later against Kurdish dissidents in northern Iraq. When George W. Bush was gearing America up for war with Iraq in 2003, he frequently cited suspicions that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. The United States had good reason to believe that Saddam had such weapons, America was one of his biggest suppliers only a few decades earlier.
The State Department declassified thousands of documents proving that then special envoy Donald Rumsfeld had helped Iraq secure ingredients and equipment necessary to produce chemical weapons and other WMDs. While the Reagan administration appears to be aware of his activities, it is unclear if he was ever given the green light by the Pentagon or other government officials. Ron Paul also famously reported meeting British scientists in Iraq during the aftermath of the first Gulf War. The scientists claimed that they were sent by the British government to aid Saddam is creating chemical and biological weapons.
The United States also actively used chemical weapons during the Vietnam War. The most famous chemical weapon was Agent Orange, a powerful herbicide. The government claims to have used the chemical to clear heavily forested areas that Vietcong troops were using as shelter. Agent Orange did a lot more than clear plants, however, and is estimated to have killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people. The chemical has also been accused of causing widespread birth defects in newborn babies across S.E. Asia.
World War I that led to the movement for chemical weapons to be banned
The United States also actively used chemical weapons in World War I. At the time, such chemical weapons were being actively used by both sides of the war, resulting in huge casualties. In fact, it was largely the trauma of World War I that led to the movement for chemical weapons to be banned.
Since these incidents, the United States signed the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention which banned the use and possession of chemical weapons. America is still in the process of destroying its chemical weapons stockpiles, but the efforts are expected to be completed in the years to come. Unsurprisingly, Syria is one of only five states that has not signed the convention.
Importantly, the United States' past use and support of chemical weapons does not mean that America has no obligation or morale grounds to discourage their use. Two wrongs do not made a right, and America's past mistakes do not justify Syria's current transgressions.
Chemical weapons can cause terrible and indiscriminate damage
The issue of whether or not to strike Syria should be left to current circumstances, but as history has proven chemical weapons can cause terrible and indiscriminate damage. As such, their use should be discouraged, but it is now up to world leaders to determine if a military strike, or more peaceful methods, such as U.N. monitoring, should be used.