Other weapons capable of massive annihilation of populations joined nuclear weapons, primarily biological and chemical weapons. Robert Oppenheimer, who oversaw the scientific work of the Manhattan Project, employed the term "weapon of mass destruction" to denote a class of weapons able to cause destruction on the scale of Hiroshima and beyond, a category that could include biological and chemical weapons.
The concept of weapons of mass destruction eventually shifted from "mass destruction" to the weapon itself. The use and even possession of such weapons by actors who previously had not possessed them came to be seen as a threat to the United States. The threshold of mass destruction ceased to be the significant measure, and instead the cause of death in a given attack took center stage. Tens of thousands have died in the Syrian civil war. The only difference in the deaths that prompted Obama's threats was that chemical weapons had caused them. That distinction alone caused the U.S. foreign policy apparatus to change its strategy.
The second cause of the U.S. shift is more important. All American administrations have a tendency to think ideologically, and there is an ideological bent heavily represented in the Obama administration that feels that U.S. military power ought to be used to prevent genocide. This feeling dates back to World War II and the Holocaust, and became particularly intense over Rwanda and Bosnia, where many believe the United States could have averted mass murder. Many advocates of American intervention in humanitarian operations would oppose the use of military force in other circumstances, but regard its use as a moral imperative to stop mass murder.
The combined fear of weapons of mass destruction and the ideology of humanitarian intervention became an irresistible force for Obama. The key to this process was that the definition of genocide and the definition of mass destruction had both shifted such that the deaths of less than 1,000 people in a war that has claimed tens of thousands of lives resulted in demands for intervention on both grounds.
The pressure on Obama grew inside his administration from those who were concerned with the use of weapons of mass destruction and those who saw another Rwanda brewing. The threshold for morally obligatory intervention was low, and it eventually canceled out the much higher strategic threshold Obama had set. It was this tension that set off the strange oscillations in Obama's handling of the affair. Strategically, he wanted nothing to do with Syria. But the ideology of weapons of mass destruction and the ideology of humanitarian intervention forced him to shift course.
An Impossible Balance
Obama tried to find a balance where there was none between his strategy that dictated non-intervention and his ideology that demanded something be done. His solution was to loudly threaten military action that he and his secretary of state both indicated would be minimal. The threatened action aroused little concern from the Syrian regime, which has fought a bloody two-year war. Meanwhile, the Russians, who were seeking to gain standing by resisting the United States, could paint Washington as reckless and unilateral.
Obama wanted all of this to simply go away, but he needed some guarantee that chemical weapons in Syria would be brought under control. For that, he needed al Assad's allies the Russians to promise to do something. Without that, he would have been forced to take ineffective military action despite not wanting to. Therefore, the final phase of the comedy played out in Geneva, the site of grave Cold War meetings (it is odd that Obama accepted this site given its symbolism), where the Russians agreed in some unspecified way on an uncertain time frame to do something about Syria's chemical weapons. Obama promised not to take action that would have been ineffective anyway, and that was the end of it.
In the end, this agreement will be meaningful only if it is implemented. Taking control of 50 chemical weapons sites in the middle of a civil war obviously raises some technical questions on implementation. The core of the deal is, of course, completely vague. At the heart of it, the United States agreed not to ask the U.N. Security Council for permission â?¨to attack in the event the Syrians renege. It also does not clarify the means for evaluating and securing the Syrian weapons. The details of the plan will likely end up ripping it apart in the end. But the point of the agreement was not dealing with chemical weapons, it was to buy time and release the United States from its commitment to bomb something in Syria.