In recent days, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have made much of their moral repugnance at alleged chemical warfare attacks by the Syrian regime against rebel groups. Their retaliatory missile strikes, if made, would demonstrate that the use of chemical weapons by any force against any foe, is completely unacceptable to the world’s community. It was a moral line that, if crossed, would bring condign punishment to the perpetrators.
These US threats lose their moral authority in three respects.
The first is that it is not at all clear (despite claims to the contrary) that the weapons were used by the Syrian armed forces. Persuasive evidence, with photographic back-up, suggests the strikes were made by one rebel group against another.
Second, it is entirely unclear whether a limited US missile strike would punish or deter any of those responsible. But it would surely result in more civilian loss of life, exacerbate the already confusing military situation and lead to a widening of the conflict through threatened retaliatory attacks by Syria against Israel and other neighbouring states.
Third, it starkly exposes United States’ double standards. The United States used chemical weapons in the form of mutagenic and carcinogenic defoliants in at least one war – Vietnam. It also supplied chemical weapons for use by others, notably Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. To retrace the rather murky history of US involvement in that war, one has to go back to the Pentagon’s master plan of 1984-88, which ranked defence of the Middle East as second only to the defence of North America and Western Europe. In pursuit of this priority, President Reagan inserted the United States into the Iran–Iraq War, first on the side of Iran, then on the side of Iraq. In November 1982, a senior Department of State official, Jonathan Howe, informed Secretary of State Schultz that Iraq was resorting to almost daily use of chemical weapons against Iran. In December 1983, US special envoy Donald Rumsfeld visited Baghdad to inform Saddam Hussein that the United States was doing all it could to cut off arms sales to Iran. In March 1984, Rumsfeld again visited Baghdad to tell Saddam that the United States priority was to defeat Iran, not to punish Iraq for using chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Washington was sending Baghdad military intelligence and advice, and US, German and British companies were supplying Iraq with a wide range of munitions, including cluster bombs. With the full knowledge of officials in Washington, US companies were also sending to Iraq several strains of anthrax for Iraqi biological weapons and insecticides for germ warfare.
In 1984, Iran asked the UN Security Council to investigate the trade. Washington remained silent on the issue for several months, before finally, and reluctantly, criticising Iraq for using chemical weapons. Nevertheless, United States companies, notably Dow Chemicals, continued to supply Iraq with components for chemical weapons right through until the end of the war in 1988. One of Dow’s last shipments was a shipment of insecticides worth $1.5 million in December 1988.
Source: Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s 2012 book The Untold Story of the United States, Ebury Press, 2012.