A Bad Argument for Bombing Syria

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President Obama in his efforts to win support for bombing Syria used an argument that is especially bad, even among the many poor arguments in his various statements. He claimed that the stockpile of nerve gas of the Syrian government poses a direct threat to the United States. If these gases got into the hands of terrorists, the gases might be used in attacks against America.  Obama said: “When you start talking about chemical weapons, in a country that has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world, where over time their control of chemical weapons may erode, where they’re allied to known terrorist organizations, that in the past have targeted the United States, then there is a prospect, a possibility in which chemical weapons, that can have devastating effects, could be directed at us and we want to make sure that that does not happen.”

In response to this danger, he proposes military measures to punish the Assad regime for what he alleges to be its use of nerve gas. These measures, if successful, would show the Syrian government that using nerve gas has a severe cost. Suppose, which I do not for a moment believe, that an American strike at Syria did have the intended effect on the Syrian government. That would not in the slightest reduce the threat to Americans from terrorist acquisition of parts or all of the Syrian government’s stock of nerve gas. That threat, to the extent it is present, comes from terrorists’ possession of stocks of nerve gas, not from the use of the gas by the Syrian regime in attacks. The military measures proposed would not get rid of nerve gas: they aim, rather, to deprive the Syrian government of the military advantage it is supposed to have gained from its use of gas. If there is a threat to us from nerve gas, bombing Syria would not relieve it. Indeed, it would increase the threat, by increasing the chances that terrorist elements could seize stocks of the gas from a weakened government and by inflaming that government against us.  ( I need hardly add that I do not assume that the Administration’s account of responsibility for the use of gas in Syria is correct. )




4:39 pm on September 1, 2013