The Atlantic

How Weapons of Mass Destruction Became 'Red Lines' for America

The country has walked to the brink of war or beyond with Iran, North Korea, Iraq, and Syria to prevent or stop them.
Source: Osman Orsal / Reuters

The American foreign-policy establishment is fond of punishing those who threaten to use weapons of mass destruction against innocents. For CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, all it took was a Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian air base suspected of sending jets to bomb the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas to make Donald Trump “presidential.” The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza questioned neither the moral nor the strategic purpose of strike, only its legality. Former Obama staffers like Anne-Marie Slaughter struck positive notes in response, grateful that some message, any message, had finally been delivered to Bashar al-Assad. Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks both praised the country for standing up for the taboo against chemical weapons that arose among European nations after World War I.

Since the 1960s, categorical opposition to weapons of mass destructionbiological, chemical, and nuclear—has been a hallmark of American foreign-policy thinking. John F. Kennedy recast the American president as a protective father to the world. So when reports noted that images of “young children and babies being gassed” reportedly moved Trump to action in Syria, they were echoing a long tradition, one that has both helped to justify international cooperation to combat the

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