, Volume 90, Number 5

Michelle Bentley

This article examines US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy rhetoric on Syria, specifically in relation to the threat of chemical weapons and the prohibitionary taboo surrounding their use. It contends that Obama’s rhetorical construction of the taboo is not simply a commitment to the control of these horrific weapons (where such arms have been comprehended as so extensively vile as to preclude their employment), but that this also represents the strategic linguistic exploitation of these normative ideals in order to directly shape policy. By analysing of presidential speeches made during the conflict, it demonstrates that Obama has manipulated pre-existing conceptions of chemical weapons as taboo, and also as forms of weapons of mass destruction, to deliberately construct policy in line with his own political ambitions—most notably as a way of forcing a multilateral solution to the situation in Syria. This article challenges existing perceptions of the chemical weapons taboo as an inherently normative constraint, arguing that this instead comprises a more agency-driven construct. Static notions of the taboo must be abandoned and subsequently replaced with a framework of understanding that recognizes how the taboo can be used as a deliberate driver of foreign policy.

To read this article, you need to be a Chatham House member

Find out more about Chatham House membership