Paper Can't Stop Chemical Weapons

By George Will Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), September 9, 1996 | Go to article overview

Paper Can't Stop Chemical Weapons


George Will Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Some good will come of Saddam Hussein's latest misbehavior if it convinces 34 senators to do the right, if uncomfortable, thing by blocking ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Ratification, to be voted on this week, would be an act of conspicuous unseriousness, deepening democracies' tendency to disconnect rhetoric from reality.

President Bill Clinton displayed that tendency when he explained the U.S. attacks on Iraq: "When you abuse your own people or threaten your neighbors you must pay a price." But the abuse of a regime's people is not a sufficient reason for U.S. retaliatory actions. And regarding Iraq's neighbors, none feel threatened enough by Hussein's action, which is confined to Iraqi territory, to publicly endorse the U.S. reaction.

A State Department spokesman said, "You cannot have agreed-upon rules in the international system flouted by international outlaws." But if the rules were agreed upon, "the international community" would act like a community defined by shared norms. There are no agreed-upon rules regarding the improvisation in northern Iraq - the Kurds' "protected" area. The United States is sensibly using Hussein's action there as a pretext for measures to degrade Iraq's capacity for aggression southward, toward oil. Given the sensibilities of democracies, realpolitik sometimes must be couched in unrealistic language. But unrealism can become habitual, which brings us to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which supposedly would banish the spectre of chemical warfare. In 1988 Hussein used chemical weapons with ghastly effects against Kurdish villages and Iranian soldiers. Before the Persian Gulf War, he produced large stockpiles of mustard gas and nerve agents. During the war he deployed gas-filled artillery and rocket rounds in rear areas. Inspections after the war have confirmed the common-sense conclusion that it is virtually impossible to prevent a closed society's production of chemical weapons. Experts believe Iraq retains significant chemical weapons production capabilities and continues to refine chemical and biological weapons. There is no reason to believe that Hussein or others like him would be reverent regarding the Chemical Weapons Convention's impressively baroque, but otherwise unimpressive, scheme of inspection and enforcement. Critics of the Chemical Weapons Convention have many sound objections concerning the convention's inspection apparatus, which could be highhandedly intrusive, but only in societies where it would be irrelevant - in open, lawful societies. …

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