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Obama invents chemical ‘red line’ to permit US rule in MidEast

Map of countries which have, or have had chemical weapons, from IBTimes. The orange countries are Sudan and Egypt. 

Obama’s Rogue State

The US calls on other nations to abide by the treaties it violates.

By George Monbiot, blog and Guardian
September 09, 2013

You could almost pity these people. For 67 years successive US governments have resisted calls to reform the UN Security Council. They’ve defended a system which grants five nations a veto over world affairs, reducing all others to impotent spectators. They have abused the powers and trust with which they have been vested. They have collaborated with the other four permanent members (the UK, Russia, China and France) in a colonial carve-up, through which these nations can pursue their own corrupt interests at the expense of peace and global justice(1).

Eighty-three times the US has exercised its veto(2). On 42 of these occasions it has done so to prevent Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians from being censured(3). On the last occasion, 130 nations supported the resolution, but Obama spiked it(4). Though veto powers have been used less often since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US has exercised them 14 times since then (in 13 cases to shield Israel), while Russia has used them 9 times(5). Increasingly the permanent members have used the threat of a veto to prevent a resolution from being discussed. They have bullied the rest of the world into silence.

Through this tyrannical dispensation – created at a time when other nations were either broken or voiceless – the great warmongers of the past 60 years remain responsible for global peace. The biggest weapons traders are tasked with global disarmament. Those who trample international law control the administration of justice(6).

But now, as the veto powers of two permanent members (Russia and China) obstruct its attempt to pour petrol onto another Middle Eastern fire, the United States suddenly decides that the system is illegitimate. “If”, Mr Obama says, “we end up using the UN Security Council not as a means of enforcing international norms and international law, but rather as a barrier … then I think people, rightly, are going to be pretty skeptical about the system”(7). Well, yes.

Never has Obama, or his predecessors, attempted a serious reform of this system. Never have they sought to replace a corrupt global oligarchy with a democratic body. Never do they lament this injustice – until they object to the outcome. The same goes for every aspect of global governance.

Barack Obama warned last week that Syria’s use of poisoned gas “threatens to unravel the international norm against chemical weapons embraced by 189 nations”(8). Unravelling the international norm is the the US president’s job.

The 1972 photo by Huynh Cong Ut, Associated Press. The clothes of the naked girl disintegrated in the searing heat of the napalm bomb dropped by the US military. On children.

In 1997, the United States agreed to decommission the 31,000 tonnes of sarin, VX, mustard gas and other agents it possessed within 10 years. In 2007 it requested the maximum extension of the deadline permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention: five years. Again it failed to keep its promise(9), and in 2012 it claimed they would be gone by 2021(10). Was the world’s richest nation unable to complete this task on time? Or just unwilling? Russia has now urged Syria to place its chemical weapons under international control(11). Perhaps it should press the US to do the same.

In 1998, the Clinton administration pushed a law through Congress that forbade international weapons inspectors from taking samples of chemicals in the US and that allowed the president to refuse unannounced inspections(12). In 2002, the Bush government forced the sacking of José Maurício Bustani, the director-general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons(13,14). He had committed two unforgiveable crimes: seeking a rigorous inspection of US facilities and pressing Saddam Hussein to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention, to help prevent the war George Bush was itching to wage.

Dead children and cat in a street of Halabja after the chemical attack on Kurds by Iraq.
(Photo by Iranian photographer Sayeed Janbozorgi who died in 2003 due to chemical injuries from the war.)

According to Wikipedia:The know-how and material for developing chemical weapons were obtained by Saddam’s regime from foreign sources.The largest suppliers of precursors for chemical weapons production were in Singapore (4,515 tons), the Netherlands (4,261 tons), Egypt (2,400 tons), India (2,343 tons), and West Germany (1,027 tons). One Indian company, Exomet Plastics, sent 2,292 tons of precursor chemicals to Iraq. The Singapore-based firm Kim Al-Khaleej, affiliated to the United Arab Emirates, supplied more than 4,500 tons of VX, sarin, and mustard gas precursors and production equipment to Iraq. Dieter Backfisch, managing director of West German company Karl Kolb GmbH, was quoted as saying in 1989: “For people in Germany poison gas is something quite terrible, but this does not worry customers abroad.”

The 2002 International Crisis Group … concludes it was ‘tacit approval’ by many world governments that led to the Iraqi regime being armed with weapons of mass destruction, despite sanctions, because of the ongoing Iranian conflict. In March 2008, the government of Iraq announced plans to take legal action against the suppliers of chemicals used in the poison gas attack.

Among the chemical precursors provided to Iraq from American companies such as Alcolac International and Phillips was thiodiglycol, a substance needed to manufacture mustard gas, according to leaked portions of Iraq’s “full, final and complete” disclosure of the sources for its weapons programs. The provision of chemical precursors from United States companies to Iraq was enabled by a Ronald Reagan Administration policy that removed Iraq from the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Alcolac was named as a defendant in the Aziz v. Iraq case presently pending in the United States District Court (Case No. 1:09-cv-00869-MJG). Both companies have since undergone reorganization. Phillips… is now part of ConocoPhillips, an American oil and discount fossil fuel company. Alcolac International has … reformed as Alcolac Inc.

The US used millions of gallons of chemical weapons in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It also used them during its destruction of Falluja in 2004, then lied about it(15,16). The Reagan government helped Saddam Hussein to wage war with Iran in the 1980s, while aware that he was using nerve and mustard gas(17). (The Bush administration then cited this deployment as an excuse to attack Iraq, 15 years later).

Smallpox has been eliminated from the human population, but two nations – the US and Russia – insist on keeping the pathogen in cold storage. They claim their purpose is to develop defences against possible biological weapons attack, but most experts in the field consider this to be nonsense(18). While raising concerns about each other’s possession of the disease, they have collaborated to bludgeon the other members of the World Health Organisation, which have pressed them to destroy their stocks(19).

In 2001, the New York Times reported that, without either Congressional oversight or a declaration under the Biological Weapons Convention “the Pentagon has built a germ factory that could make enough lethal microbes to wipe out entire cities.”(20, 21) It claimed the purpose was defensive, but, developed in contravention of international law, it didn’t look good. The Bush government also sought to destroy the Biological Weapons Convention as an effective instrument, by scuttling negotiations over the verification protocol required to make it work(22).

Looming over all this is the great unmentionable: the cover the US provides for Israel’s weapons of mass destruction. It’s not just that Israel – which refuses to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention – has used white phosphorus as a weapon in Gaza (when deployed against people, phosphorus meets the convention’s definition of “any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm”(23)).

It’s also that, as the Washington Post points out, “Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile results from a never-acknowledged gentleman’s agreement in the Middle East that as long as Israel had nuclear weapons, Syria’s pursuit of chemical weapons would not attract much public acknowledgement or criticism.”(24) Israel has developed its nuclear arsenal in defiance of the non-proliferation treaty, and the US supports it in defiance of its own law, which forbids the disbursement of aid to a country with unauthorised weapons of mass destruction(25).

As for the norms of international law, let’s remind ourselves where the US stands. It remains outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, after declaring its citizens immune from prosecution. The crime of aggression it committed in Iraq – defined by the Nuremberg tribunal as “the supreme international crime”(26) – goes not just unpunished but also unmentioned by anyone in government. The same applies to most of the subsidiary war crimes US troops committed during the invasion and occupation. Guantanamo Bay raises a finger to any notions of justice between nations.

None of this is to exonerate Bashar al-Assad’s government – or its opponents – of a long series of hideous crimes, including the use of chemical weapons. Nor is it to suggest that there is an easy answer to the horrors in Syria.

But Obama’s failure to be honest about his nation’s record of destroying international norms and undermining international law, his myth-making about the role of the United States in world affairs and his one-sided interventions in the Middle East all render the crisis in Syria even harder to resolve. Until there is some candour about past crimes and current injustices, until there is an effort to address the inequalities over which the United States presides, everything the US attempts, even if it doesn’t involve guns and bombs, will stoke the cynicism and anger the president says he wants to quench.

During his first inauguration speech, Barack Obama promised to “to set aside childish things”(27). We all knew what he meant. He hasn’t done it.


1. See George Monbiot, 2003. The Age of Consent: A manifesto for a new world order. Harper Perennial, London.

2. UN Security Council Fast Facts, CNN library, September 2013.

3. No more US vetoes at the UN, Jewish Voice for Peace, nd.

4. Sahar Okhovat, December 2011. The United Nations Security Council: Its Veto Power and Its Reform. CPACS Working Paper No. 15/1.

5. UNSC veto list United Nations, Research Guides & Resources

6. Functions and powers of the UN Security Council, UNSC

7. Remarks by President Obama in a Press Conference at the G20, White House briefing, September 2013.

8. ditto

9. USA unable to meet Chemical Weapons Convention 20012 deadline, Arms Control Association, May 2006

10. Pueblo Chemical Weapons Disposal Plant 85% Complete, Official Says U.S. Army’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program in Pueblo Colorado, USA; Global Security Newswire, January 2012

11. Russia calls on Syria to hand over chemical weapons, Guardian, September 2013.

12. The chemical weapons convention: has it enhanced US security?, Arms Control Association, April 2001.

13. Chemical coup d’etat The US wants to depose the diplomat who could take away its pretext for war with Iraq, April 2002

14. US ignores international treaties and rules of war, Guardian, April 2002

15. The US used chemical weapons in Iraq – and then lied about it, Guardian, November 2005

16. Behind the phosphorous clouds are war crimes within war crimes, Guardian November 2005

17. CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,
The U.S. knew Hussein was launching some of the worst chemical attacks in history — and still gave him a hand.

18. Should the USA and Russia destroy their smallpox stocks?, BBC, May 2011

19. WHO decides to keep smallpox stocks…for nowLive Science, May 2011

20. Next to Old Rec Hall, a germ-making plant, NY Times, September 2001.

21. US germ warfare pushes treaty limits, NY Times, September 2001

22. Edward Hammond, 21 September 2001. Averting Bioterrorism Begins with US Reforms. The Sunshine Project.

23. Article 11, Chemical Weapons Convention, Definitions and criteria

24. When the United States looked the other way on chemical weapons, Glen Kessler, September 4th, 2013

25. Calls for Olmert to resign after nuclear gaffe Guardian, December 2006.
· PM admits on TV that Israel has atomic weapons
· Blow to longstanding policy of ambiguity

26.International Justice and the International Criminal Court
[“War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression therefore, is not only an international crime, it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal 1946.]

27. Barack Obama’s inaugural address, NY Times,January 2009

Notes and links

UN Security Council, 2013
To the victor, the spoils (is not its motto)

Five permanent members: The victors of the war 1937 (Japan v China +Germany, USSR, USA)- 1945 Germany, Japan, Italy, Romania v USSR, USA, China, UK, France. (Hannah Arendt was outraged by the ‘lie’ that France was a victor of the war, having fought for little of it and collaborated with Nazi Germany for most of it.) Each one of these five members can veto a substantive resolution.

Plus ten other states, elected for two-year terms. In 2013 they are Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Togo

Israel admits phosphorus bombing  Phosphorus weapons cause chemical burns and the Red Cross and human rights groups say they should be treated as chemical weapons. Used by Israeli forces in Lebanon, BBC, October 2006.

Photos of children deformed by Agent Orange, dropped by US forces in SE Asia

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