Gassing children is abhorrent. Killing children in any way is abhorrent, but President Donald Trump said he was particularly moved by the images of the recent Syrian chemical weapons attack. That is understandable because the use of chemical weapons in warfare is arguably worse than other types of wartime battlefield killing.
The reason: Modern killing by chemicals is a cruel and calculated way to destroy humans but preserve physical structures, roads and machines. A warmonger who wants to preserve infrastructure but destroy the lives of opposing armies, collaborating civilians and innocent bystanders has decided that life is cheap but buildings are not.
In Syria, the civilian population is terrorized not only by rockets, bullets and bombs, but they are also subjected to murder by starvation and poison gas. Only the last two approaches kill people without destroying their homes, schools or places of worship.
A look at the rubble that was once the Syrian city of Aleppo is a reminder to all that a violent, explosive war with conventional weapons can destroy nearly everything. Aleppo was under siege for four years, with President Bashar Assad’s government fighting opposition rebel forces dug-in and fighting amidst civilians.
The Syrian government took Aleppo late last year, claimed a victory and won back a decimated city where once stood a vibrant town.
Chemical weapons like the sarin and chlorine gas used by Assad, however, change the fighting calculus. Killing with chemistry prevents a town’s destruction. Infrastructure survives; buildings are preserved. Chemical weapons allow for a war victory with the spoils remaining intact.
In the late 20th century, an enhanced radiation weapon was developed that did the same thing. The neutron bomb, also known as the “capitalist bomb” or “landlords’ weapon,” was developed and nearly deployed by the United States and France. It was a bomb with less explosive and heat-generating power but with radically more radioactivity and the ability to kill life but keep structures and machines in good working order.
Politics, fear and strategic considerations kept this weapon out of production. International outrage forced countries to abandon work on the neutron bomb, seen popularly as an immoral and indiscriminate weapon. Chemical weapons share the neutron bomb’s negative values.
Trump expressed his emotional reaction to the horrendous imagery of beautiful children gasping for air, their lungs burning, their bodies paralyzed. His military response was meant to be punitive and a warning against Assad’s further use of chemical weaponry.
The final part of his presidential action should now be preventive. Stop chemical weapons entirely, not only in Syria but around the world.
Use of chemical weaponry must never be normalized, and the president should use this moment to take a strong, moral and consistent stand to promote extreme verification internationally. The previous vetting process for Assad’s secretly stockpiled or recently manufactured sarin and chlorine gas was inadequate. Only extreme verification with global partners can move the world toward total eradication of this scourge.
This may sound aspirational, but it is imaginable and achievable. Trump should use his dealmaking business prowess to build a coalition of military powers prepared to enforce the current Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons work.
OPCW is a 2013 Nobel Peace Prize-winning international organization with a 98 percent world membership. But OPCW needs to be given stronger tools and expanded international legal authority if it is to more aggressively enforce standing treaties. One way might be to empower a United Nations that Trump already wants to rationalize and reform.
Stopping chemical weapons could be Trump’s signature foreign policy initiative, one more immediately achievable than previous presidents’ attempts to eradicate nuclear weapons. The United States, too, still has stocks of chemical weaponry it plans to eliminate by 2023.
Negotiating a means to accelerate the destruction of foreign and remaining American chemical weapons could also open a door to dealing with other future problems that threaten the global commons. Now is the time.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.