The Corner

Chemical Weapons and Gun Control

In my column today, I write about how once again the issue of WMDs has distorted American foreign policy. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, the Bush administration painted itself into a corner by focusing almost exclusively on weapons of mass destruction. I write:

In 2003, then–deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz gave a lengthy interview to Vanity Fair that caused a huge uproar, largely because the magazine shamefully distorted what he was trying to say. Wolfowitz explained that within the Bush administration there were a lot of arguments for why we should invade Iraq. Some had to do with the fact that Saddam Hussein was a state supporter of terrorism. Some had to do with how Hussein treated his own people. Others emphasized alleged links between the regime and 9/11. And so on.

Each of these arguments had proponents and opponents, Wolfowitz explained. The result was that “we settled on the one issue that everyone could agree on”: weapons of mass destruction.

The problem was that focusing solely on a single issue turned out to be disastrous for the administration when the WMD never materialized. It should have been clear to everyone that few important decisions in life boil down to a single issue.

In a very different situation, Obama has pretty much been seduced by the same logic. For two years Syria policy was based on the premise that we need to isolate and eventually oust Assad. Now, getting rid of his chemical weapons, even if it means making Assad our partner, is the sole focus of our Syria policy. 

Sometimes a single issue is enough to drive foreign policy. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, we didn’t need to know much more than that to declare war on Japan (though it’s worth remembering that FDR had been moving us toward war for years before that). But more often foreign-policy decisions are driven by a bunch of factors. Our foreign policy toward China, for instance, involves important question about trade, human rights, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, etc. No one buys a house simply because it’s got the right number of bathrooms. No one buys a car solely because it’s the right color. And very few men will marry a woman solely because she’s a fan of the Green Bay Packers. 

By making chemical weapons virtually the sole issue driving Syria policy, as a matter of logic, we make all the other issues non-issues. Killing your own people is okay, just so long as you kill them with the right weapons. 

I’m sure someone else has noted this, but I’m struck by how similar this logic is to the case for gun control. When it comes to guns, the Left says the killer isn’t the issue. The issue is the means the killer used to kill. Get rid of guns and you’ll get rid of gun murders. Putting aside the constitutional and practical problems with this, it does make superficial sense. The problem, of course, is that you will still have murderers (and you will make it harder for potential murder victims to defend themselves).  

Now, I don’t like chemical weapons and I’d be happy to see them cast into the dustbin of history. But my attitude about them is ultimately very similar to my attitude towards nuclear weapons. I care less about their existence and more about who has them. Who stays up at night worried about the British nuclear arsenal?  The two main problems with Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons are 1) that he owns them and 2) that some awful people might get their hands on them. Prior to the fiasco of the last month, American foreign policy recognized these variables as part of a broader equation. Now our sole stated foreign-policy goal is to deal with those weapons (the unstated policy goal, of course, is to keep us from going to war to save Obama’s credibility). That’s a perfectly fine goal, but it’s not the one we started out with and it’s not so important that it renders every other consideration meaningless.

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