Yesterday, University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer joined PBS Newshour to argue against military intervention in Syria. The political scientist is rather infamous in some circles for perceived dabbling in anti-Jewish discourse. He co-authored the controversial book The Israel Lobby & U.S. Foreign Policy, which argues that a mostly Jewish collective exercises massive malign influence on the American government. He’s drawn up lists of “righteous Jews” and not-so-righteous Jews, in rhetoric disturbingly reminiscent of anti-Semites Father Coughlin and Charles Lindbergh. And he glowingly blurbed a vicious book which calls American Jews “the enemy within,” questions the Holocaust, and claims that “robbery and hatred is imbued in Jewish modern political ideology on both the left and the right.”
The book and its author were so toxic that Mearsheimer’s approbation prompted harsh condemnation even from Andrew Sullivan, a staunch supporter of his criticisms of Israel and its lobby, who called it an endorsement of “poisonous, wounding hate.” Given this track record of insensitivity bordering on bigotry, it is sadly unsurprising that when the PBS conversation on Syria yesterday turned to the historical use of chemical weapons, Mearsheimer completely forgot about the Nazi genocide of the Jews. Here’s what he said:
I would like to point out that all of this discourse about chemical weapons being so special is, I think, wrong. I think it’s, again, regrettable that chemical weapons have been used. But chemical weapons are not weapons of mass destruction, like nuclear weapons are. The reason that chemical weapons were not used in World War II wasn’t because someone like Adolf Hitler was above using them for moral reasons.
They weren’t used because they have very little military utility. Anybody who has been in the Army knows that chemical weapons just don’t buy you much on the battlefield… I ask you, what’s the difference between killing somebody with shrapnel or bullets vs. killing them with chemical weapons? I don’t see any meaningful difference…
[T]he idea that chemical weapons have suddenly changed the nature of the game and therefore we should get involved now, I think, is a specious argument.
Astute readers will have spotted a slight problem here: if Adolf Hitler abstained from deploying chemical weapons during World War II, how did he manage to gas hundreds of thousands of Jews in concentration camps? Mearsheimer would likely retort that he meant to refer only to military operations, but why does this distinction make any difference? Are chemical weapons only notable when employed on the battlefield instead of against scores of innocents? And shouldn’t the gas chambers at least merit a passing mention, if only to exclude them from the argument? (Especially given how a prominent academic omitting them could easily fan the flames of Holocaust deniers.)
Moreover, even if we restrict the professor’s statement to military campaigns, he is wrong on the facts. As the multi-volume Oxford University Press history of Germany’s conduct in World War II documents, the Nazis used chemical weapons against the Soviets on the Kerch peninsula, and had a thriving program for producing such armaments, for which Hitler had “great hopes.” Though the Germans didn’t end up developing many of these weapons, it was not for lack of trying.
But even if we disregard these uncooperative facts, Mearsheimer’s argument that chemical weapons are not uniquely pernicious refutes itself. He is entirely correct that in many circumstances such weapons have “little military utility” and “just don’t buy you much on the battlefield.” But this is precisely why they are so awful: their purpose is not to achieve any legitimate on-the-ground objective, but to cause pain and suffering. Not simply to kill, but to terrorize. Which is why the civilized world responds with such horror and revulsion when they are deployed indiscriminately against civilians.
Now, just because Bashar Assad has made the situation in Syria worse doesn’t mean that we can make it better. So personally, I’m not sold on either side of the Syrian intervention debate yet. But I am fully convinced that Mearsheimer’s argument is one of the most ill-informed, insensitive, and incoherent put forward in that conversation.