Would Bombing Syria Deter the Use of Chemical Weapons?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


The putative reason for air strikes on Syria is that we need to enforce international treaty norms against the use of chemical weapons. This is a fine justification, and I wish that Team Obama would stick to it instead of veering off into the kind of absurd fearmongering we’ve heard over the past few days. More and more, they sound like every two-bit political hack of the past century who’s whipped up war fever among the locals by haranguing them with sordid accounts of foreign barbarity, appealing relentlessly to national chauvinism, and scaring everyone with tales of atrocities that will surely visit the homeland if we don’t retaliate now now now. It’s sort of nauseating seeing the Obama administration haul out this age-old playbook.

But no matter how you feel about that, there’s still the argument that autocratic thugs need to be deterred from using chemical weapons. And it’s a good argument: autocratic thugs should be deterred from using chemical weapons. But even though I’d very much like to believe a strike on Syria would accomplish that, I’m having a pretty hard time convincing myself that it really would. The problem is that no matter how virtuously we view our own motives, and no matter how clear we think our message is, the rest of the world views things differently. They are much more cynical, and the message they’ll take away from air strikes is that the U.S. will punish the use of chemical weapons if:

  1. You are a small country that poses no real threat of retaliation;
  2. And we didn’t like you very much to begin with;
  3. And the current U.S. president happens to want to do it;
  4. And America’s current strategic alliances permit it.

Would American air strikes on Syria give the world’s tinpot thugs something to think about? Sure. And maybe you can say that every little nudge helps. But if we end up bombing Syria, I don’t think anyone would take away from it a belief that America will always and forever retaliate against any country that uses chemical weapons. That’s a pleasant fiction we might enjoy telling ourselves, but history doesn’t back it up and the rest of the world knows it.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate