Exploiting the forbidden

This book analyses the Syria crisis and the role of chemical weapons, in relation to US foreign policy. The Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons and their subsequent elimination would dominate the US’ response to the conflict, where these are viewed as particularly horrific arms – a repulsion known as the chemical taboo. On the surface, this would seem an appropriate reaction: these are vile and intolerable weapons, and eradicating them would ostensibly comprise a ‘good’ move. But this book reveals two new aspects of the taboo that challenge this view. First, actors employ the taboo strategically to advance their own self-interested policy objectives. This is in contrast to the highly static and constructivist approaches that have informed conceptualisation of the taboo until now. Far from a situation of normative adherence, this is a case in which the taboo exists as a strategic political resource, used to achieve aims that may have nothing to do with preventing chemical warfare. Second, it is argued that applying the taboo to Syria has exacerbated the crisis. While many expound the benefits of the taboo, it is demonstrated here that the exact opposite is true. The taboo has actually made the conflict significantly worse. As such, this book not only provides a timely analysis of Syria, but also a major and original rethink of the chemical taboo, as well as international norms more widely.

Chapter 3 examines Obama’s rhetorical employment of the taboo as the situation in Syria progressed. Whatever his views against intervention, Obama would engage with the taboo as a core theme of his rhetoric on Syria. This is explained as a strategic move on the part of Obama; explicitly, that it comprises the construction of a strategic narrative. While his inadvertent reference to the taboo forced him towards a more interventionist stance, this also gave him the discursive tools to limit expectations for greater action to a policy that – while this did not reflect his preferences perfectly – was a significantly better fit with his desires than full-on intervention.

in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo

Chapter 5 analyses the ways in which the taboo has had a detrimental impact on the Syrian conflict. In particular, it focuses on the how specific weapons are perceived within a conflict, where the taboo causes chemical armaments to be prioritised over others via inappropriate hierarchies of threat. The way in which the taboo has dominated understanding of Syria has seen other threats ignored – notably the vast numbers being massacred with conventional devices, but also the significant biowarfare threat that exists in the country. This means that policymakers have focused on the wrong issues in respect to Syria, a situation that precludes ever finding workable solutions to the crisis. Simply put, policymakers are not seeing the real problems. The taboo blinds them; or rather, applies a lens through which they can only see the chemical threat and none of the other issues driving this conflict.

in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo

Chapter 6 demonstrates that Syria is not simply a case of misinterpretation, but one in which the taboo has intensified the conflict. The conflict is worse and more violent as a direct consequence of using the taboo as the basis of US foreign policy. It looks at the physically and politically destructive ways in which the taboo has fed the tensions underpinning the crisis, specifically where these are identified as effects that would not have occurred had the taboo not been prioritised above all other concerns. The chapter then concludes with a more comprehensive analysis of how the taboo is detrimental to international politics and whether it should even be kept as part of IR discourse.

in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo
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Chapter 2 applies the strategic interpretation outlined previously to US foreign policy on Syria, explicitly understood as a reference to Obama’s redline. It demonstrates that this is not the hardline ultimatum it was made out to be; but is in fact a calculated construct that expresses Obama’s own preferences concerning US involvement in the crisis. Specifically, it analyses Obama’s real intentions in setting the redline to reveal that these have been misinterpreted. More specifically, that pre-existing ideas surrounding the chemical weapons taboo have caused Obama’s statement to be misconstrued as a be-all-and-end-all of US foreign policy on Syria. It examines the wider policy context at the time to demonstrate that this interpretation was diametrically opposed to Obama’s professed position and that the redline actually comprises a much softer and moderate allusion to the taboo.

in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo
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Chapter 4 demonstrates the sheer extent to which this strategic process was agency-driven and calculated. Obama did not merely use the taboo to limit policy, but to actively control it. This is not merely a case in which Obama drew on conventional understandings of the taboo, but in which he dug deep into that construct to exploit specific aspects in the promotion of his own self-interest. This was a manipulative and deliberate process, one in which Obama exercised significant control over the idea of the taboo itself. Far from the inevitable adherence to the taboo that this situation has been portrayed as, this was in fact the opposite – a case in which Obama effectively reversed that normative expectation in order to manipulate it for his own gain.

in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo
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in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo
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in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo

This chapter analyses the chemical weapons taboo – the idea that chemical weapons are so abhorrent that they cannot be tolerated. In particular it engages with the work of Richard Price. It reinterprets the taboo from the perspective of Quentin Skinner and his concept of the ‘innovating ideologist.’ Instead of viewing the taboo as a social construction, this analysis argues that actors can exert significant agency over the taboo and the way in which it is employed in political discourse.

in Syria and the chemical weapons taboo