Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Chemical Weapons and Our Moral Response

Michael J. Gerson


By Michael J. Gerson

September 13, 2013

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast for the Center for Public Justice on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa. 

President Obama’s recent speech to the nation on Syria focused on a serious challenge: the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. He pointed, in particular, to the August 21st attack that killed well over 1,000 people, including many children. But the regime probably used chemical weapons in smaller amounts more than a dozen times before that, without much attention or consequence. 

The president’s description of the suffering caused by those weapons was moving. And he is correct that they occupy a uniquely horrifying place in the history of warfare. They are essentially and purposely indiscriminate. They produce not only casualties, but also mass terror, driving mass refugee flows. And they have been banned from use by nearly universal global agreement since the horrors of World War I. 

Maintaining an international norm against the use of chemical weapons is an important goal. I think it would have justified a limited military strike to deter future use. It certainly justifies the pursuit of negotiations to put these weapons under international control in Syria – though there are large, practical obstacles to achieving such an outcome. No one has ever tried such an effort before in the middle of a civil war. 

A focus on chemical weapons is important. But an exclusive focus on chemical weapons presents some risks.

First, there is a strategic risk.  Maintaining a norm against the use of chemical weapons is only one of America’s interests in the Middle East. But we also have interests in countering a bid for regional dominance by Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah being made with outside help from Russia; in preventing the broader spread of sectarian conflict; in maintaining the stability of friends such as Jordan; in undermining the strength of jihadist groups; and in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. The success of a regional strategy will not be judged on the issue of chemical weapons alone.

And second, there is a moral risk to an exclusive focus on chemical weapons.  There are, unfortunately, other horrible forms of indiscriminate killing. The Assad regime has bombed schools during school hours. It has targeted hospitals and clinics. It has attacked bakeries when the lines for bread are longest. It has used SCUD missiles and barrel bombs (oil drums filled with high explosives and metal shards) against residential neighborhoods. Assad has crossed many moral red lines, not just one. 

It is not morally serious to be horrified by attacks on civilians by sarin gas and silent on purposeful attacks on civilians by artillery or bombs. Determining the right policy response on either is not easy, but responding to both is important. 

- Michael J. Gerson is a Visiting Fellow with the Center for Public Justice and a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post. He is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”