In Defense of U.S. Inconsistency on Chemical Weapons

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Staff Editor

As the United States and its allies consider military action to punish the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Iranian regime media have made hay of new evidence that Washington enabled Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks on Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. Readers are also reminded that the United States used weapons like napalm and toxic chemical defoliants in Vietnam, among other historical infractions. In other words, America is accused of glaring hypocrisy. But inconsistent behavior should be condemned only when the swerve in question is toward error or wrongdoing. When the change is from bad to good, it should be welcomed.

To be sure, the Obama administration’s record in the region is full of unsavory contradictions. It intervened in Libya to protect civilians from massacre by the Qadhafi regime, but it declined to take similar action in Syria as President Bashar al-Assad’s forces steadily escalated their murderous assaults on the population—first with volleys of gunfire on peaceful protesters, then indiscriminate artillery fire, airstrikes, ballistic missile attacks, and finally chemical bombardments of urban areas held by the armed opposition. Many observers have asked why the administration seems to give more weight to the hundreds of deaths from chemical attacks than to the hundred thousand deaths from conventional arms to date.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. government has declared its support for democratic change and free elections in places like Tunisia and Egypt, while also maintaining alliances with thoroughly antidemocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have worked to suppress political rights and civil liberties at home and abroad. Most recently these governments have subsidized Egypt’s July coup, which Washington still refuses to identify as such. The United States also maintains close military ties with, and arms sales to, Bahrain despite that kingdom’s relentless repression of protesters and activists calling for political reform, notably through the especially vicious use of a less-lethal chemical weapon: tear gas. 

All of these inconsistencies are deeply regrettable, and there are many more gaps between U.S. rhetoric and U.S. actions regarding democracy and human rights. However, no government is completely consistent in its policies or completely faithful to its ideological tenets in practice. It is therefore important to draw distinctions of degree and kind. For example, it is one thing to fall short of admirable democratic ideals, and another to act according to despotic values that assign little worth to human life or freedom, or to have no ideals at all.

Furthermore, some regimes suffer not just from behavioral contradictions, but also from structural contradictions. China, for instance, is ruled by a semihereditary caste of rapacious millionaires who continue to mouth the proletarian values of Marxism. Iran, meanwhile, invites citizens to participate in elected government while declaring the supremacy of a self-selecting clerical elite.

The United States itself was born with deep structural contradictions, the greatest of which was institutionalized chattel slavery in a republic founded on freedom and equality. Correcting that flaw required a civil war in one century and a massive civic mobilization in the next; even today efforts are under way to bring domestic laws and practices into line with the country’s core ideals. The point to emphasize is that the implementation of democratic values can be regarded unambiguously as progress for humanity. The same cannot be said for the likes of fascism or Maoism. Left unchecked and unreformed, authoritarian regimes inevitably foster violence and instability, either through outward aggression, domestic repression, or their proclivity to sudden implosion.

Democracies, by contrast, have a great capacity for promoting long-term stability through open debate and self-correction, which typically comes when a country returns to its central ideals. One hopes that the latest U.S. moves on Syria represent such a return, and that it includes not just humanitarian revulsion at the use of chemical weapons, but a renewed commitment to the belief that all people in the region deserve to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of democracy.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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