Chemical weapons then and now [With Comment by John and response by Paul]

I find it odd that so many Republicans are so dismissive of Assad’s use of chemical weapons as a factor militating strongly in favor of attacking Syria through the air. The Republican case for going to war in Iraq was based in large part on the fact that Saddam Hussein had used chemical weapons; the belief that he still possessed them (and maybe other WMD); and the fear that he would use such weapons again, not just on Iraqis but also perhaps on others in the region, and/or share them with terrorists.

Based largely on this case, President Bush proposed a large-scale air and ground war against Iraq. He received overwhelming support from conservatives.

The same case applies in Syria now. A few differences can be found, of course. First, there is less doubt about whether Assad possesses chemical weapons than there was regarding Saddam (indeed, this time seems to be no doubt). Second, no one is proposing the use of ground troops in Syria.

Thus neither of the main considerations that cause many conservatives to regret our action in Iraq — the fact that very few WMD were found and the fact that we ended up fighting a protracted war — applies here.

I don’t recall anyone arguing that Saddam could find ways to kill people other than with WMD. Yet, now this is considered by some a sufficient answer to those who contend that Assad’s use of chemical weapons constitutes a substantial reason for a U.S. military response.

There are a number of reasons (including some substantial ones) why conservatives oppose a military strike against Syria. I fear, though, that in some cases sheer partisanship — Obama-hatred, if you will — is the driving (albeit unacknowledged and perhaps even unrecognized) factor.

JOHN responds: I am a nay-sayer on attacking Syria, but I don’t think it is because I’ve gotten complacent about the proliferation of chemical weapons. I will avoid the cheap response–What, Iraq went so well that we conservatives should be itching to do it again?–and try to respond substantively to Paul’s point.

The cases, I think, are entirely different. We went to war with Iraq, not because Saddam had used chemical weapons against his own population years before, but rather (along with other reasons) out of a concern that Saddam, a bitter enemy of the United States, might transfer weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups who would then use them against us. While that concern is by no means absent in the case of Syria, it is not as strong. Assad is no friend of the U.S., but, unlike Saddam, he hasn’t been shooting at U.S. airplanes. Heck, not long ago the Obama administration considered him to be a “reformer.”

More important, President Bush didn’t just advocate a bombing raid against Iraq. Rather, he explicitly made the case for invasion and regime change. The idea behind the Iraq campaign was that Saddam would be evicted and replaced with a pro-west government that could be counted on to destroy stocks of WMDs, or, in any event, not to slide them to terrorist groups. That is not the case in Syria. President Obama has not proposed to get rid of Assad, but rather, to punish him via a few cruise missile strikes. This would not prevent Assad from transferring chemical weapons to terrorists–it is almost certain that some such weapons would survive whatever strikes we might launch–but, on the contrary, may increase his inclination to do so.

Moreover, to the extent that any military action we take may increase the odds of victory by rebel forces, that result may or may not be good for the U.S. The rebels consist in large part of al Qaeda and other extremist elements. If they do overthrow Assad and thereby gain control over Syria’s chemical weapons, our effort may very well bring about the exact opposite of what the Iraq invasion was intended to prevent: proliferation of WMDs to terrorist groups.

So I don’t think there is any inconsistency between supporting the invasion of Iraq (as I did) and opposing the military intervention in Syria that the administration has proposed (as I also have).

PAUL responds: The inconsistency (which I don’t attribute to John) is between supporting the invasion of Iraq based on the WMD rationale and dismissing the importance of the fact that Assad possesses and has used chemical weapons. As I tried to make clear, there are substantial reasons to oppose a strike, even taking the matter of chemical weapons seriously.

Obama didn’t just propose punishing Assad with a few strikes for using chemical weapons. He proposed attacking and degrading the chemical weapons capacity. John Kerry said this repeatedly in his testimony, which I heard every word of.

Kerry even added that the administration wasn’t ruling out the use of ground troops if it appeared that chemical weapons might fall into the hands of al Qaeda elements, although he later added — in face of resistance from committee members — that he wasn’t seeking authority to do this.

The Iraq invasion also involved the risk that Saddam would transfer his WMD to others before the attack, which was talked about for many months before it occurred. Some believe that Saddam did just that, moving chemical weapons to Syria.

The Iraq invasion also involved the risk that, in the chaos of Saddam’s downfall, WMD would fall into the hands of radical splinter groups within Iraq. I don’t recall conservatives advocating that we not invade because of that risk.

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