Rejecting the Threat of a Nuclear Response to Chemical Weapons Attack

September 19, 2001

Chemical weapons are very much in the news. The problems UN inspectors have faced in trying to eradicate Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons program are well known, but concerns reach far beyond Iraq. In August 1999, a UN panel warned that dangers from chemical weapons are increasing all over the world. Current U.S. policymakers reacted to these threats by strongly implying that the U.S. would retaliate against a chemical weapons attack with nuclear force. In the spring of 1997, for example, the Clinton administration assured the Senate that retaliation "would draw on the whole range of weapons in the U.S. inventory." Would a nuclear response be reasonable in moral terms?

From the perspective of the Western just war tradition—which includes the requirement that the use of force be proportionate to the threatened danger—nuclear retaliation for a chemical attack would raise serious problems.

A strategic nuclear response must be considered disproportionate because chemical weapon agents are nowhere near as deadly as strategic nuclear weapons. World War I-era chemical agents such as mustard gas, phosgene, and chlorine are bulky, unpredictable, and lethal only against the unprotected. Relatively simple measures such as sealed windows, and gas masks and hoods combined with stout clothing are adequate protective measures. Even modern chemical nerve agents are significantly less lethal than nuclear weapons. Steve Fetter of the University of Maryland calculated, for example, that a sarin-bearing missile might kill as many as 200 to 3,000 people, depending on conditions on the ground. Shocking though these figures are, this scale of lethality is far below that of nuclear weapons. Fetter estimated the same missile with a nuclear warhead would kill approximately 40,000 people. Even at their worst, then, putting chemical weapons in the same category as the most lethal nuclear weapons raises the specter of a disproportionate response.

There are strong moral as well as prudential arguments against using chemical weapons, and against treating them simply as weapons like any other. But what I am arguing here is that the U.S. government should keep its response to potential wrongdoing proportionate. Failing to do so not only puts the United States on the road to nuclear war. In addition, making such a threat strengthens the hand of other nuclear states that might be tempted to respond to their own security problems by similar means.

Related Links:
(Information on Iraq’s military structure and weapons capability)
(Information on Iraq’s chemical weapons arsenal)
(Chemical weapons primer)
(Information on UN peace and security activities; also search: Chemical Weapons)
(Information on Iraq’s biological weapons program)

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