Once again, world attention is caught by the specter of villainous Arabs, brandishing weapons. In the mid-1970s it was the oil weapon. Today it is chemical weapons. In both cases the weapon is wielded discreetly by the United States itself. In both cases, the main threat is to the people of the Third World.

The so-called oil weapon, initially touted as a threat to Israel, in fact accomplished nothing for the Arab cause. But it contributed mightily to the world arms economy, as petrodollars were lavished on expensive weapons systems purchased from the US, France, Britain and other advanced industrial countries, East and West. It provided spare capital for Western banks to pursue the worldwide lending strategy that has plunged the Third World (including more than a few oil producers) into deep debt.

Anticipating increasing chaos in the poor countries, the Pentagon is shifting from an East-West to a North-South posture. The North-South war game is not one of defending the boundaries of ordered societies, but of rapid strikes for purposes of rescue, retaliation or intimidation, in pursuit of specific Western “interests” — the sort of war described in the 1982 US Army manual as “AirLand Battle 2000.” That document incorporated a US and West German concept of integrated conventional, nuclear and chemical warheads for use on the electronic battlefield deep in enemy territory.

Congress made CW appropriations contingent on European NATO agreement to let the new weapons be stationed there. But NATO only vaguely approved CW procurement as a US “force goal.” The Bonn government got the US to promise to withdraw the CWs it now stores in Germany by 1992, and to keep the new binary weapons in the United States, deploying them only in a crisis situation and with host permission. Unless the US violates this agreement, there seems little prospect of US CWs being deployed, much less used, in Europe. [1] Because the binaries are safer to handle, they are suitable for rapid deployment. Rapid deployment usually means the Third World. [2]

Arab and Third World countries will take up CWs because they are relatively cheap and easy to make, according to many analysts. The US will be well prepared to respond in kind. Moreover, while poisonous compounds are easy to concoct, to such a point that practically any large chemical installation can produce poison gas on the side, the US and its allies can count on keeping well ahead in the delivery systems necessary for firing CWs at a safe distance.

Germany introduced mustard gas onto the World War I battlefield in 1915 “to bring a quick end to the war.” It soon became clear that in close combat between technologically equal adversaries, CWs were too uncontrollable to be of much use. They were quickly relegated to obscure colonial conflicts. Leading nations that signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing CW “use in war” went on to use chemical weapons in colonial pacification. Spain and France both used gas in suppressing the Rif rebellion in Morocco in the 1920s. In 1930, Italy used mustard gas to subdue resistance to colonial conquest of Libya. A few years later, Italy used it again on a larger scale in the conquest of Ethiopia.

Today, modern armies, especially the Soviets, the Israelis and the French, have developed effective CW defenses for their soldiers. They are equipped with protective gear and syringes for injections that counteract nerve gas (although they put soldiers to sleep). [3]

The media has enjoyed describing chemical weapons as “the poor man’s atomic bomb.” This follows the successful and unreprimanded Iraqi use of chemical weapons first against Iran and then against its own Kurdish populations. Instead of condemnation and sanctions, Iraqi CW use has brought in its wake a hyped-up publicity campaign for chemical weapons.

The new conventional wisdom was summed up by French Gen. Pierre Gallois, one of the pillars of Gaullist nuclear doctrine and Dassault aviation company: “Chemical armament is going to become the standard armament of a vast belt of states, from North Africa to Pakistan. Those states, not being nuclear, are going to find in chemical weapons an analogous means of intimidation. That means that from now on it’s going to be necessary to think of deterrence not only in East-West but also in North-South terms.” [4]

Chemical weapons are by no means a “deterrent” in a class with nuclear weapons. They are an anti-personnel weapon, used to paralyze or panic forces with limited means of defense or powers of retaliation. Still, this nuclear analogy was strengthened by the international conference on chemical weapons, held in Paris from January 7-11, supposedly to encourage respect for the 1925 Protocol and to promote a successful conclusion of negotiations in Geneva for a comprehensive ban on CW production. Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq al-‘Aziz noted that Israel has “nuclear weapons as well as chemical weapons and missiles that can reach many Arab cities,” arguing that a comprehensive CW ban should be coupled with a ban on nuclear weapons.

A principled approach by the United States might have isolated Iraq, but the Reagan administration helped take the heat off Baghdad by directing world attention toward an alleged “chemical weapons factory” in Libya. Iraq’s line of argument was too readily accepted by some Americans as the “Arab” or “Third World” position, dooming a comprehensive CW ban. Most other Arab and Third World countries made the parallel with nuclear weapons simply to remind the nuclear powers of the problem, not to oppose a CW ban. They voiced more serious objections to the effort to discriminate between “responsible,” advanced industrial states and themselves. Libya’s Jadalla Azouz Ettalhi cautioned against imposing restrictions against developing countries in order to deprive them of technology necessary for peaceful purposes, and asked that agreements be “free of all discrimination” between states.

Tunisian Foreign Minister ‘Abd al-Hamid al-Shaykh denounced the “close collaboration between Israel and South Africa” in developing mass destruction weapons which he called a grave threat to Arab and African countries. The Third World, he recalled, serves as proving ground for most new weapons, and the current campaign on the theme of CW proliferation should not obscure “the obvious fact” that the greatest mass destruction potential is held by the rich countries with greatest scientific, technological and financial means.

New York Times reporter James Markham noted afterward that “according to diplomats in several capitals, the Paris conference may have had the perverse effect of crystallizing an awareness among Arab and other Third World nations of the military and deterrent values of chemical arms.” This “perverse effect” was so blatant, even before the conference was held, that it is hard to believe it was altogether unintentional.

Ever since the Soviet Union agreed to on-site inspections demanded by the US, Washington’s enthusiasm for the comprehensive ban on production and storage of CWs being negotiated in Geneva seems to have flagged. Several factors may be at play: suspicion that verification is impossible, commercially motivated reluctance to let verification controllers snoop through US chemical plants, the momentum of the current CW program, the Pentagon’s desire to keep its options open and a feeling that CWs are not a major menace to the United States in any case.

The feeling at the current Geneva negotiations on a global CW ban was that US negotiators were not eager to succeed. The West Germans were especially critical of Washington, since they wanted to ensure permanent removal of US CWs from German soil. The West German chemical industry was the first to agree to full on-site inspection, and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was in the forefront with constructive proposals.

The January 1989 Paris conference provided a stage for the Reagan administration to transform chemical weapons from an East-West into a North-South problem, while putting the troublesome West Germans on the defensive. The striptease revelations of German industrial involvement in construction of the “Pharma 150” pharmaceuticals plant at the new Libyan industrial complex at Rabta killed a whole flock of birds with one stone. It forced the conference to focus on the issue of proliferation to the Third World rather than a universal ban. It demonstrated the power of US “intelligence sources” to regulate allies by meting out information nobody else is in a position to prove or disprove and thereby establish the media agenda that forms public opinion. It reminded the Germans that their past precludes any moral leadership and any independent approach to countries hostile to Israel.

It diverted attention from the US buildup of binary weapons to the hypothetical arsenals of Third World states. It provided an opportunity to revive the “terrorism” theme, neglected since Contragate. By concentrating on alleged Libyan plans rather than documented Iraqi use, it convinced Arabs and the Third World that the US was not being fair or serious. It deepened the gap of distrust between the American bloc and the Third World. Finally, the whole uproar generated a mass of clichés about the supposedly irresistible virtues of chemical weapons for Arab and other Third World states.

Israel was key to the shift from a universal to a discriminatory approach. William Safire’s allegation, in his notorious “Auschwitz-in-the-Sands” column in the New York Times, that a chemical weapons plant in Libya posed the threat of mass extermination of Jews, suddenly gave priority to non-proliferation. Such accusations aroused considerable indignation, yet they succeeded in confusing the issue. Genscher’s diplomacy was destabilized. After evidence came in that Imhausen Chemie had helped build the Libyan plant, contrary to its earlier denials, very few Germans dared doubt the rest of the syllogism: that the Rabta plant was a CW factory and a threat to Israel. Hardly anyone recalled that only a universal ban would provide the legal basis for a solution to the Rabta problem by instituting inspections. A convention would also provide a non-discriminatory basis for banning chemical exports to countries refusing inspection. A Libyan CW factory is as legal as an American one. The issue, though, is political, not legal.

In its February 15 report to the Bundestag, the Kohl government concluded that, according to its “present judgment,” the Rabta installation “is not only suitable to, but set up deliberately for the manufacture of chemical weapons.” [5] Only former Bundeswehr officer and peace researcher Alfred Mechtersheimer, a member of the Green fraction in the Bundestag, complained that the report neither proved nor disproved that judgment. The “fixation on Libya,” he said, was a diversion from Geneva, where efforts should be made to “see to it that the US doesn’t act like an alcoholic who forbids others from drinking by pursuing a new policy of non-proliferation.” The proliferation approach is dangerous, he argued, because it will have the same effect as nuclear non-proliferation: building up central arsenals without impeding proliferation.

Mechtersheimer’s position was not widely understood even in the Green party. Most Greens and Social Democrats seized the opportunity to heap moral reproaches on the conservative government. Social Democrat Norbert Gansel demanded that Bonn require Libya to return equipment illegally obtained from German firms "so that the United States cannot have grounds for military intervention."

The German government report drew conclusions going far beyond Libya or the chemical industry: “Preventing the spread of sensitive technology for military purposes from the industrial countries to the Third World will be one of the major international concerns of the next years and decades.” Thus the gap between North and South is to be enforced on military security grounds.

In the Rabta affair, the United States brandished a weapon far more formidable than poison gas: its worldwide electronic spying network. Everyone knows that any telephone conversation between Libya and Germany ends up in the computers of the National Security Agency, which can make of it what it wants. The NSA, called “America’s big ear” in a Der Spiegel cover story, listens in on heads of state or simple citizens all around the world, violating whatever national laws may ensure privacy of communications. [6] The US can conceal, reveal or distort this information, which no one else has or can verify, to shape the news and influence the political decisions of other governments. The transformation of the chemical weapons debate from the question of global production to that of Third World proliferation testifies to the superior efficacy of the “intelligence weapon.”


[1] “The United States has in effect created a chemical-free zone in Western Europe,” concluded Julian Perry Robinson in a monograph on NATO Chemical Weapons Policy and Posture, ADIU, University of Sussex, September 1986. Binary weapons comprise two materials that become lethal only once they are combined.
[2] A June 1986 workshop on NATO policy held in West Berlin found that the deterrent value of US CWs was very limited. “There is no operational or deterrent justification for NATO to acquire a large-scale chemical warfighting capability,” it concluded. The same study observed that “the case for new, more transportable munitions becomes much stronger if one postulates a world in which there is no more peacetime deployment in Europe, and rapid deployment of weapons…becomes more critical.” Chemical Weapons and Western Security Policy, by the Aspen Strategy Group, co-chaired by Brent Scowcroft, in collaboration with the European Strategy Group (Boston: University Press of America, 1987).
[3] According to French Army specialist Henri-Michel Coq.
[4] Le Quotidien de Paris, February 14, 1989.
[5] By early March, Washington was covering its bets by claiming that Libya was seeking to convert Rabta into a pharmaceuticals plant after all. International Herald Tribune, March 3, 1989.
[6] Der Spiegel, February 20, 1989.

How to cite this article:

Diana Johnstone "Behind the Chemical Weapons Campaign," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

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