Obama’s Chemical Weapons ‘Red Line’ Is Even More Propaganda Than You Think

When the news about chemical weapons use in Syria hit the headlines again last week, I wrote that the whole debate on the issue was bogus. I argued that the alleged use of chemical weapons didn’t change the fact that the administration sees war in Syria as too costly and that, in any case, chemical weapons aren’t any different from the conventional military means that have already killed tens of thousands.
Over at Foreign Affairs, John Mueller argues Obama should “erase the red line.” He explains that not only is the chemical weapons “red line” bogus in the way I argued last week, but that the history of how chemical weapons occupied a special place in the international psyche is filled with as much war propaganda as Obama’s red line position.

The notion that killing with gas is more reprehensible than killing with bullets or shrapnel came out of World War I, in which chemical weapons, introduced by the Germans in 1915, were used extensively. The British emphasized the weapons’ inhumane aspects as part of their ongoing program to entice the United States into taking their side in the war. It is estimated that the British quintupled their gas casualty figures from the first German attack for dramatic effect.
As it happened, chemical weapons accounted for considerably less than one percent of the battle deaths in the war, and, on average, it took over a ton of gas to produce a single fatality. Only about two or three percent of those gassed on the Western front died. By contrast, wounds from a traditional weapon proved 10 to 12 times more likely to be fatal. After the war, some military analysts such as Basil Liddell Hart came to believe that chemical warfare was comparatively humane — these weapons could incapacitate troops without killing many.
But that view lost out to the one that the British propagandists had put forward — that chemical weapons were uniquely horrible and must, therefore, be banned. For the most part, the militaries of the combatant nations were quite happy to get rid of the weapons. As the official British history of the war concludes (in a footnote), gas “made war uncomfortable … to no purpose.”

Mueller also argues, as I did last week, that fears that the administration will use this news about chemical weapons to justify going to war in Syria “are probably misplaced.” The administration, and the military establishment, knows there is no viable opposition for a post-Assad Syria, any limited intervention would be vulnerable to mission creep and probably end up requiring boots on the ground and considerable resources in blood and treasure. A new US war could generate a descent into sectarian conflict on the order of post-Saddam Iraq and would spark a new jihadist cause in the broader Middle East, and potentially a regional war between states.
It’s worth noting that the media hype over the chemical weapons allegations distort the actual intelligence. According to one intelligence official speaking to McClatchy newspapers, there is “low or moderate confidence” that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
But all you can hear on cable news is that Obama’s failure to invade Syria now that chemical weapons have allegedly, we think been used hurts “American credibility.” The word credibility here is instructive. What they mean is that unless the whole world fears US violence and aggression, it hurts the national interest.
As Daniel Larison has noted today at The American Conservative, going to war for “credibility” is foolish.