The Corner

Re: What is a WMD Red Line — and Why?

Victor Davis Hanson takes it as a given that, even without finding WMD in Iraq, “proof of past use and future capability” justified our intervention. Maybe so. But if so, it was necessary to sell the war to the public, and to other countries, using such a rationale. And no attempt was ever made to do that. Our government agreed that we had to invade. But they never actually agreed on the specific reason why we had to invade. And as the administration’s rationale for war shifted in the months before and after the invasion, the case for war became hopelessly confused.

The same thing happened at the diplomatic level. Consider U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, which sent the inspectors back into Iraq at the end of 2002. Read it close enough, and you will realize that it was an agreement to disagree on the most basic elements of the rationale for intervening. Indeed, the closed-door negotiations at the Security Council strongly suggested that the American government itself was confused about exactly what principle it wanted everyone to agree on. Certainly, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s ill-fated presentation of “evidence of WMD” at the Security Council totally contradicted the strategic posture of the U.S., which was that if Saddam couldn’t prove he didn’t have WMDs, we were going to invade. The Pentagon was operating on the assumption that the burden of proof was on Saddam. But the State Department — and the White House communications team — were operating on the assumption that the burden of proof was on us.  

Victor implies that on Syria, Obama’s no-use-of-WMDs red line just isn’t credible, given our failure to act over much greater crimes against humanity, and given the lack of any consistent principles underlying Obama’s red line. It’s easy to chastise Obama’s foreign policy for lack of consistency and principle, but the underlying policy question is not actually so easy to resolve.

The danger posed by rogue regimes that sponsor terrorism and stockpile weapons of mass destruction doesn’t just materialize suddenly when the regime attacks somebody. It is the very existence of such regimes that poses an intolerable threat. The threat inheres in the uncertainty they pose, by their nature and structure. 

If Assad finally crosses the red line of using WMDs against his own people, all that proves is that we should have acted much earlier — on the basis of principles and red lines that we should have articulated long in advance.

Past use of WMD, and future capability and disposition to use them again, is an intellectually compelling reason for war. But first people have to be convinced of that intellectual case, otherwise, it isn’t a politically compelling reason for war — the key measure in a democracy (or in front of the international community). As I wrote in my recent piece on the anschluss of Austria and Nazi Germany, democracies are severely restricted in the range of choices that their governments have when it comes to foreign policy. A foreign policy that prevents problems from turning into catastrophes has to be preemptive — and it also has to be firmly rooted in principles that have been widely debated, and agreed upon, in advance.

Mario Loyola — Mr. Loyola is a research associate professor and the director of the Environmental Finance and Risk Management Program at Florida International University and a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. From 2017 to 2019 he was the associate director for regulatory reform at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.


The Latest