What Is a WMD Red Line—and Why?

by Victor Davis Hanson

Apparently the possible use of some sort of chemical weapon in Syria must constitute a “red line” and is a “game changer” that (historically?) justifies prompt Western intervention. Yet we all knew that Saddam had used chemical weapons in Iraq between 1980 and 1989 against both Iranians and Kurds, and we did not intervene until much later when he invaded Kuwait. When we re-arrived back in 2003, we discovered that, even without the anticipated deployable stockpiles, there was plentiful evidence that he had the capability to reformulate his WMD industry. Nonetheless, “Bush lied, thousands died” became the slogan, once the occupation became both violent and costly — as if proof of past use and future capability was not worth the cost of intervention. Certainly, no one denied that Saddam at any moment had retained the infrastructure to revert to his past habits of using chemical weapons.

All administrations, but this one in particular, would do well to state why use of WMD constitutes a red line—given that WMD in and of itself is not necessarily connected to a greater magnitude of casualties. Over 500,000 were butchered, many with primeval, hand-held edged weapons in Rwanda—and with not much global concern. Hafez Assad used mostly conventional arms to level Hama, killing 10,000–20,000 to general world indifference. So far the 70,000 killed in Syria by conventional weapons do not cross red lines that a few hundred murdered with chemical weapons apparently might?

So why are we to intervene after proof of use of WMD? If six or seven are killed by the use of gas, do we intervene promptly? And the reason is? 1) The fear of escalation and future WMD use, as the unthinkable would become ordinary? 2) Violation of international accords? 3) The dangers of such a convenient deadly and stealthy weapon, should its common use make it accessible to terrorists? 4) The potential for mass attacks through sustained use that eventually would inflict far greater casualties than conventional weapons could? 5) The chance for pollution, accidents, and contamination by the habitual deployment of biological and chemical agents?

All that would supposedly explain why we would intervene to stop WMD, even if only a few died, in a way we did not over 70,000 deaths? 

If so, the public should be apprised of these differences and the issues involved. Otherwise, we are going to hear more about “red lines,” “game-changers,” warnings, and threats, and then when the next rumor of a possible isolated use of WMD surfaces, we will either be forced to back up our rhetorical threats with action, or suffer more erosion in the credibility of the U.S. government. We forget lots of global bad actors watch the U.S. — both its rationales for acting and the degree of harmony, or lack thereof, between loud proclamations and subsequent action.

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