Is the US being hypocritical in taking years to destroy its chemical weapons, while condemning other nations for their own chemical weapons programs? A political philosopher weighs in


The United States has finished destroying the last of its stock of chemical weapons, marking the end of a 26-year period during which it frequently condemned other states for maintaining and using chemical weapons while continuing to keep a stockpile of such weapons for itself.

The use of chemical weapons on the battlefield has been illegal since 1925, and the United States in 1997 ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, which committed it to destroying its existing chemical weapons.

This delay reflects, in part, the sheer difficulty of destroying chemical weapons safely. Nonetheless, some commentators have also thought the U.S. displayed hypocrisy for loudly condemning other states for their chemical weapons programs while maintaining supplies of such weapons itself.

As a political philosopher, I am interested in the ways in which moral ideas such as hypocrisy can be applied to international politics. The idea of hypocrisy is a complex one, and it is not easy to understand what exactly follows, morally speaking, when one is accused of being a hypocrite.

Political hypocrisy

The first thing to note here is that hypocrisy generally involves conflict between what someone does and what someone says. And as philosopher Eva Feder Kittay notes, that does not generally mean that the hypocrite’s words are false. Sometimes “do as I say and not as I do” is good moral advice. In other words, if a politician praises honesty while practicing deceit, honesty still constitutes the morally superior choice.

Political theorist Judith Shklar similarly noticed this truth about hypocrisy. She asserted that the disdain we feel for a hypocrite is not because her moral statements about others are wrong, but because the hypocrite is too weak to live up to what she may require of others.

This may help us understand why we tend to think the hypocrite is morally inadequate. The one who condemns others without living up to the morality that grounds such condemnation seems not to be taking morality itself all that seriously.

That, in turn, suggests that the hypocrite does not offer moral condemnation as sincere moral advice. Like the deceitful politician praising honesty, the hypocrite instead uses moral language for the purpose of self-interest – to score political points, or to demonstrate dominance over someone else.

Critics of American foreign policy have often described the U.S. as hypocritical in just this way. Singaporean diplomat and author Kishore Mahbubani has argued that the U.S. is too often willing to condemn the human rights abuses of its adversaries while ignoring those of its allies, and indeed its own practices – including decisions about when and how to use military force, as in the invasion of Iraq – that seemingly contravene international law. This suggests, he argued, that the U.S. does not always care about human rights in themselves and too often uses them as a tool for self-interested politics.

And some Middle Eastern commentators have noted that the United States condemns the use of chemical weapons by hostile nations while ignoring, or assisting, the use of chemical weapons by allies.

Police officers and others stand in front of tall buildings that appear to be damaged.

Damaged buildings in the town of Douma, the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack, near Damascus, Syria, in April 2018.
AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, for instance, noted in 2013 the irony that the U.S. condemned the use of chemical weapons by Syrian leader Bashar Assad against civilians while refusing to issue sanctions on the use of such weapons by Saddam Hussein to kill nearly 5,000 of his own citizens in the 1988 Halabja massacre. The reasoning for this silence was purely political, argued Zarif: At the time, Saddam was viewed as a staunch U.S. ally and a necessary counter to regional Iranian influence.

An investigation later revealed through CIA documents and interviews with former officials that the U.S. had provided Iraq with intelligence it knew would result in in a chemical weapons attack against its own citizens. Those weapons were partly derived from thiodiglycol, a chemical manufactured in the U.S. and imported from an American firm.

After the relationship with Iraq soured, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged to Congress that he was seeking to find a legal way to permit the use of “non-lethal” chemical weapons as part of the invasion of Iraq.

These weapons are explicitly banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention as tools of war and are often more destructive than the term would imply: Russia’s use of nonlethal sleeping gas in response to a hostage-taking in Chechnya left 130 hostages dead in 2002. The willingness to use chemical weapons during that invasion sits uneasily with the fact that the invasion was justified, in part, on the basis that Iraq itself maintained a stock of chemical weapons.

Maintaining moral authority

Coming back to today, the destruction by the U.S. of its chemical weapons supplies will, at the very least, remove some of the perception that the United States has been hypocritical in its attitudes toward such weapons.

From my perspective, as regards those weapons, their destruction is not sufficient to fully ensure American moral authority. The U.S. might be rightly accused of hypocrisy until it consistently condemns their use by anyone – ally or adversary.

The accusation of hypocrisy doesn’t change the fact that countries shouldn’t use chemical weapons. The American condemnation, even if hypocritical, is still valuable.



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