Lost in the ongoing debate about Syria is a rather startling irony: while the Administration argues that intervention is necessary to enforce global norms against chemical weapons, the United States stands in material breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention, the single most important international law on this category of arms. Entering into force in 1997, the CWC prohibits the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical agents. Significantly, it also required member states to completely destroy their stockpiles by April 2007 or obtain an extension from a conference of states-parties. The United States ratified the treaty in the late ’90s and proceeded to comply with the obligation to destroy the U.S. arsenal, which included mustard gas, VX, and sarin. But our stockpile was easily one of the largest in the world, with nearly 30,000 metric tons of chemical agents, and by 2003 it became apparent that meeting the 2007 deadline would be impossible. So Washington requested a new deadline of April 29, 2012, and the conference of states-parties granted the request.
The new deadline, however, was again too soon, and the U.S. military failed to complete the destruction project in time. Today approximately 10% of the arsenal remains in place, and the Pentagon doesn’t expect to finish with disposal until 2023. What’s more, there’s no possibility of another extension: an annex to the CWC establishes that “in no case shall the deadline for a State Party to complete its destruction of all chemical weapons be extended beyond 15 years after the entry into force of [the] Convention.” In short, we’ve been in breach of the CWC for over a year, and we’ll probably continue to breach the treaty for another decade. This breach, moreover, isn’t trivial, as the obligation to destroy stockpiles reduces the risk of proliferation, drastically lowers the risk of use, and generally goes to the very heart of the treaty’s purpose of ridding the world of chemical weapons.
In raising this point, I obviously don’t mean to equate the U.S. breach with what has happened in Syria. The point is simply this: it’s harder for the Administration to justify war to enforce international norms against chemical weapons while simultaneously violating a critical part of the Chemical Weapons Convention. If the norms are that important, one would think that the United States would adhere to them in full. (For more on this subject, see this article by David Koplow, who provides an extensive analysis on the U.S. breach.)