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Why Some Killing Matters More

syria-chemical-weapons

Why are chemical weapons a “red line” in a war where so many have been killed? Stephen Erlanger  (“A Weapon Seen as Too Horrible, Even in War,” NYT) recounts the long history.

Roughly 16 million people died and 20 million were wounded during World War I, that “war to end all wars,” yet only about 2 percent of the casualties and fewer than 1 percent of the deaths are estimated to have resulted from chemical warfare.

Nevertheless, the universal revulsion that followed World War I led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use, though not the possession, of chemical and biological weapons. In effect from 1928, the protocol is one of the few treaties that have been almost universally accepted and become an international norm. Syria, too, is a signatory.

No Western army used gas on the battlefield during the global slaughter of World War II. Hitler, himself gassed during World War I, refused to order its use against combatants, however willing he and the Nazis were to gas noncombatant Jews, Gypsies and others.

Since World War II and the atomic bomb, which redefined warfare, chemical weapons have been categorized as “weapons of mass destruction,” even if they do not have the killing power of nuclear weapons.

The Geneva Protocol was not even the first effort to ban the use of poison in war, said Joanna Kidd of King’s College London. “Throughout history, there has been a general revulsion against the use of poisons against human beings in warfare, going back to the Greeks,” she said. Some date a first effort to ban such weaponry to 1675, when France and the Holy Roman Empire agreed in Strasbourg not to use poisoned bullets.

[...]

It was only in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, started by Iraq after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, that chemical weapons were again used in large amounts, and by the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein against Iranian forces and his own Kurds. The Iraqis used both first- and second-generation nerve gases to blunt Iranian offensives in southern Iraq and forestall defeat. Given American and Western unease with Iran’s revolution, there was little public outrage as Muslims used poison on other Muslims.

The world’s indifference altered sharply, however, in March 1988, when Mr. Hussein killed between 3,200 and 5,000 Kurds around the town of Halabja and injured thousands more, most of them civilians, some of whom died later from complications.

The Halabja killings, considered the largest chemical warfare attack ever directed at civilians, led to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, in force since 1997, which bans not just the use but also the possession, manufacture and transfer of chemical weapons. It has since been signed and ratified by 189 states, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which carries out the treaty. Syria is among only five states — with North Korea, South Sudan, Angola and Egypt — that have neither signed nor ratified it.

Tellingly, said Camille Grand, who worked on chemical disarmament for the French Foreign Ministry, Iraq never used its chemical weapons again — not in the Persian Gulf war in 1991, although American troops were prepared for their use, or in the 2003 American invasion, which overthrew Mr. Hussein.

“Halabja changed nothing but changed everything,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “In the gulf war the dechemicalization of Iraq became a war aim, and we achieved it, even though we didn’t know or believe it.”

The answer is ultimately unsatisfactory, perhaps because the impetus for the ban is visceral rather than rational. For whatever reason, humans have for centuries seen some ways of killing as more atrocious than others. And the norm against their use has largely been adhered to, even by the worst of the bad guys.

Still, this reaction strikes me as bizarre:

Former Senator Richard G. Lugar said the difference lay in the danger of proliferation. “We are talking about weapons of mass destruction, we are talking about chemical weapons in particular, which may be the greatest threat to our country of any security risk that we have, much more than another government, for example, or another nation because they can be used by terrorists, by very small groups,” he told the BBC. “The use of these weapons of mass destruction has got to concern us, and concern us to the point that we take action whenever any country crosses that line and uses these weapons as have the Syrians.”

Others say that by using gas against its own civilians Syria is violating taboos built up over more than a century that need to be defended. “We signed up for over 100 years to not use these weapons,” Ms. Kidd of King’s College said, “and if we just stand by and not do anything, what is the value of the treaty and the norm?”

Mr. Grand agreed, saying that “it really breaks a taboo and puts Syria in breach of its own commitments in Geneva and a long list of international norms.”

While militaries find chemical weapons hard to control, given the vagaries of wind and weather, they can be effective against the unprepared, and especially deadly to unsuspecting civilians. “You just have to watch the videos from Syria from Aug. 21,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “This is killing people like cockroaches and using the same chemicals to do it.”

Thousands of people were killed by machetes in Rwanda, he noted. “That’s gruesome,” Mr. Heisbourg said, “but the production and sale of machetes is not considered a threat to international security.”

While I can understand the argument for enforcing international norms so that they remain international norms, it’s absurd to argue that their use in a civil war constitute a threat to international security or that punishing Assad for using them will dissuade al Qaeda. Not only is terrorism on a mass scale at least as reprehensible as using sarin gas but the United States is already dedicating massive resources to kill al Qaeda leaders and rank-and-file militants. It’s unlikely, indeed, that their using chemical weapons would illicit a stronger response than their using passenger jets.

Further, while the Chemical Weapons Convention is indeed one of the more internalized parts of international law, it bears repeating that its enforcement mechanism is the United Nations Security Council, not the President of the United States or even the United States Congress.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    So many bad arguments out there. Just as with poverty, one despairs of ever ending stupidity.

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  2. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Are you despairing of Joyner’s arguments (which seem pretty cogent to me) or the Bomb-bomb crowd? If we’re going to end stupidity we need to be specific.

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  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    While sociologically, it may “matter more” on how warfare is fought…

    To the one that is dead, method is not the biggest issue.

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  4. Donald Sensing says:

    The reason Hitler never ordered use of chemical weapons was explained by Hermann Goering to US Army interrogators before the Nuremberg trials. It was recounted by Stanley Lovell, director of OSS R&D, in his book Of Spies and Stratagems, which I own.

    Goering said the reason the Germans did not use gas was fear of retaliation, pure and simple. But that doesn’t mean what it sounds like at first. Goering pointed out that at no time during the war was German military ground transport more than 50 percent mechanized. The rest was horse drawn.

    When a horse can’t breathe, Goering said, it simply lies down. Goering expressed amazement that the allies never figured this out since had the allies used even non-lethal chemical weapons, it would have paralyzed the German army almost completely. “You intelligence men are asses!” was his conclusion.

    I’ll see whether I can scan those pages and post a link here.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Laurence Bachmann:

    Are you despairing of Joyner’s arguments (which seem pretty cogent to me) or the Bomb-bomb crowd?

    Sorry, should have been clearer (what? you don’t remember my last 13 posts on this subject?? ;-) )

    I refer to the Bomb bomb crowd. As soon as you debunk one of their bad arguments, they come up with one even dumber. The idea that what Assad did in Syria with gas is worse than what happened in Rwanda with machetes is so ludicrous, I wonder how anyone who is capable of stringing more than 3 words together could say it.

    Or as the saying goes, “You can’t fix stupid.”

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  6. steve says:

    I think the aversion to chemical weapons is remarkable if you read the histories of WWI. Trench warfare, waves of death when people rushed machine gun emplacements. Bodies blown to bits by artillery shells. All of that mayhem, and the one thing they decided to ban was chemical weapons, and banned on a nearly universal basis. Some people think this is irrational, and maybe it is, but I hesitate to ignore this. Something about chemical weapons struck those involved in those wars that they got groups of former and future enemies to agree to the ban. Tellingly, those who had experienced their consequences did not use them in WWII. I think we should take the use of these weapons pretty seriously.

    Query- We all know Russia is stopping UN action. What would it take for Russia to stop protecting Syria?

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  7. Donald Sensing says:

    @Donald Sensing:

    Here are the scans.

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  8. rudderpedals says:

    It’s not stupid to be repelled by the use of poisons in war. Their use is not OK. Borrowing the broad brush for second, the bomb-bomb-bomb foes would tacitly accept the use of nerve gas from this point forward. They rationalize acceptance of the near certainty of future nerve gas attacks on grounds that people can be killed in other types of violence.

    James hinted at something about the nature of the weapon that’s subsumed in the pro and anti sorting, that is the visceral rejection of nerve weapons in the civilized world. I think we’re at the decision point on whether to drop the objections. I’m not reassured by retreat.

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  9. Ron Beasley says:

    @Donald Sensing: That’s very interesting, I had not heard that before. I must admit I don’t really see how gas is any worse than the firebombing of German cities, napalm and flame throwers or depleted uranium artillery shells which cause sickness years after they were fired.

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  10. @Ron Beasley:

    I find it difficult to disagree with you. I recall in 1991 when then Asst SecDef Pete Williams (now with NBC News) was asked by the Pentagon press corps whether it was true that US Army units had bulldozed Iraqi trenches over, burying alive many Iraqi soldiers.

    “Yes,” Williams replied.

    A reporter asked about whether that was too cruel (or something like that).

    Williams replied, “We don’t know a kind way to kill the enemy.”

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  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rudderpedals:

    It’s not stupid to be repelled by the use of poisons in war.

    Agreed. What is stupid is to not be repelled by war. That is where I am coming from RP. John McCain and others of his ilk have never seen a war they did not want to be a part of.

    The thing that really gets me is the acceptance of weapons used by first world nations such as smart bombs, but the revulsion towards weapons used by stateless/3rd world actors such as smart bombs suicide bombers. You would think that the difference was the target of choice, civilian versus military, but the fact is that all suicide bombers are terrorists whether the target was military or civilian, but all smart bombs are OK whether those killed wore a uniform, carried a gun, or were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    Or, to put it in other words, Death is death, and there are many truly horrific ways of inflicting it on others. But the way we do it is OK.

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  12. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    The answer is ultimately unsatisfactory, perhaps because the impetus for the ban is visceral rather than rational.

    Yeah. I have maintained for years that the US should get over 9/11 and that my US friends should stop flooding my facebook wall with soppy pictures. After all the death toll was negligible in the grater scheme of things. For some strange reason there still seems to be some lingering irrational, visceral animus there. If one people were more rational…

    for safety reasons :D

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  13. And remember that until the beginning of WW 1, blockading enemy ports was considered outside allowable acts of war for exactly the same reason that Obama declares Assad’s gas use is – its effects on noncombatants, mainly children.

    But when the allies in WW1 discovered they could effectively blockade German ports, they changed their tune. Grievous hardship among German civilians followed.

    In WW 2 the most devastating weapons dropped by B-29 bombers was not bombs of any kind, including even atomic bombs. It was sea mines, dropped to interdict Japanese ports, specifically to cut Japan off the makinland Asia food supplies. This was actually called Operation Starvation and was the intended objective of the Roosevelt administration.

    The result: before the summer of 1945, the average daily calorie intake of Japanese adults had fallen to the 800 range, which caused enormous suffering and untold deaths. I wrote more about that here.

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  14. Ron Beasley says:

    @steve: So true. If you have watched the TV series Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey you see them emphasizing those mutilated and maimed by mustard gas even though they represent a small percentage of the casualties.

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  15. rudderpedals says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I have less of an issue with smart bombs than I do poisons. I admit it.

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  16. Must be an example of new strategic thinking.

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  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rudderpedals:

    I have less of an issue with smart bombs than I do poisons. I admit it.

    So you are OK with suicide bombers? (as long as the target is not civilian)

    As to poisons, there are poisons and then there are poisons. Some kill immediately, others take years to work their magic. What was that poison sprayed over half of SE Asia so many decades ago? Oh yeah, Agent Orange.

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  18. Spartacus says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    The thing that really gets me is the acceptance of weapons used by first world nations such as smart bombs, but the revulsion towards weapons used by stateless/3rd world actors such as smart bombs suicide bombers.

    +1000

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  19. walt moffett says:

    @rudderpedals:

    Haile Selassie would say it happened in 1936. A link to his League of Nations speech.

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  20. rudderpedals says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I haven’t thought about it before, I’ll try to rank some of these in order of increasing repulsion:

    Bludgeoning and cutting weapons
    Less-inhumane projectiles
    Explosives
    Timed and trap weapons
    Really awful projectiles (flechettes for ex)
    Poisons
    Bioweapons

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  21. Scott says:

    After WWI, there was a visceral reaction to gas attacks. It wasn’t just those who died but those who suffered the rest of their lives. My grandfather (British Army) was gassed in WWI with mustard gas. He had a wound on his leg that never really healed; it just festered. Eventually he died of lung cancer in the late 40s.

    There is codification of those revulsions in international law and treaties but like all things memories fade and the animus toward such events attenuate over time.

    Let’s hope new horrors reactivate those memories. As someone said here (or perhaps another blog) getting over the Vietnam Syndrome was not necessarily a good thing.

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  22. Ebenezer_Arvigenius says:

    @Donald Sensing: Don’t get me wrong but I would need more convincing than that. Yes, the German war effort was largely horse-powered. But using gas against the distributed German transportation was a largely illusory concern. That stuff dissipates too quickly and is too difficult to deliver for this to have been a real concern.

    Göring was a brilliant pilot but completely clueless about ground warfare. He also was a burnt-out drug addict largely uninvolved in the war effort long before ’45. It should be noted that during those interviews he also claimed that the reason the U.S. really attacked in 1945 was that the Germans were close to developing a missile solution capable of attacking the American East Coast. In reality they could barely hit London, let alone achieve any military useful precision at that point.

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  23. Craigo says:

    And remember that until the beginning of WW 1, blockading enemy ports was considered outside allowable acts of war

    That is simply not true: the Anglo-Dutch Wars, the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, Crimea, the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the Russo-Japanese War all saw extensive blockading.

    And to compare it to poison gas is absurd. With rare exceptions there are few civilian deaths directly attributable to blockade, while the victims of chemical warfare generally come in two varieties: the permanently injured, and the just plain dead.

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  24. rudderpedals says:

    @walt moffett: Indeed. I don’t have a link but there should be plenty of documentation of Japanese abuses in China from that era too.

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  25. Mary Furr says:

    Guess we’re going to have to re-live history to re-learn the horror of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

    I’m deeply conflicted about trying to limit the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but those who downplay the horror of their use has obviously never suited up in full NBC gear and tried to function effectively in combat (or training exercise).

    As to James Joyner’s last paragraph, in which he points out that it is the the UN Security Council’s responsibility to enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention: I welcome the acknowledgment of the UN’s assigned role, but I don’t think the argument would be made if our country wasn’t strained from fighting two wars in the vain attempt to douse the flames of tribal warfare and Islamic intra-sectarian hatred.

    If we look at the situation from the 1000 ft level, it’s a relatively small use of chemical weapons and resulting loss of life. If we look at the situation from the 10,000 ft level, it’s two bullies duking it out in the schoolyard. If we look at it from the 35,000 ft level, it’s about Iran and Russia pulling the strings to promote their interests in the area. If we look at it from the 50,000 ft level it’s about enforcing human norms for civilized war when political means are not possible to resolve a conflict.

    It’s the last two views of the situation that, in my opinion, pose possible need for intervention. Russia will block UN intervention, so if policing the conduct of war to to conform with human norms for civilized warfare is to occur, it would, ideally, be led by a non-UN coalition. And if no non-UN coalition emerges, it’s time for the US to acknowledge either (1) we through being the world’s police, return to our early 1900s isolationist stance, and go our own way as the Middle East struggles , or (2) breath deep and affirm that we still have a political and economic power to be the adults in the world’s violent playground.

    What Would Lawrence Do?

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  26. Scott says:

    but those who downplay the horror of their use has obviously never suited up in full NBC gear and tried to function effectively in combat (or training exercise).

    I remember extensive training in chem suits in the mid-80s in PACAF. Part of every ORI (operational readiness inspection) was spent in chem gear. It was not fun. Every time the training mask fogged up, I hoped the real one would work, if required.

    However, a funny thing happened in 1988, the requirement for chem training was drastically reduced. The explanation I remember was that if chemical were actually introduced, we would quickly escalate to worse things, so it was pointless. Not sure if that is accurate but that was the word at the troop level.

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  27. Mary Furr says:

    @Scott: Have no data to support my fear, but here goes:

    We have never invested the research and development necessary to create the means to operate effectively in combat situations in which chemical and biological weapons are used for long duration and/or under extreme weather conditions. Therefore, resorting to nuclear weapons would be next best (worst?) option.

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  28. Scott says:

    @Mary Furr: Actually, there has been a lot of R&D in CBRN. It is just hard technology. The limiting factor is the human being who is the weak link. Take, for instance, gas masks, an area I worked in. There have been a number of masks developed in the last couple of years. One of the areas that had been updated is the anthropological data of the human face. With the influx of women, Asians, African Americans and others, the range of shapes and sizes of the human head has grown and is very complex. To get 95-98% of the armed forces population to be able to fit into one of 3-5 sizes is very difficult. Adding to the complexity is the fact that missions are highly varied with the introduction of night vision as an example. Electronics requires dexterous fingers. If you’ve ever worn gloves and typed on a computer, you can get my drift.

    I think it is best not to think of CBRN as a viable combat option and work to outlaw it.

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  29. PD Shaw says:

    the universal revulsion that followed World War I led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use, though not the possession, of chemical and biological weapons. In effect from 1928, the protocol is one of the few treaties that have been almost universally accepted and become an international norm.

    The United States didn’t sign on to this protocol for fifty years, and only then with the provisio that the United States merely wouldn’t be the first to use it.

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  30. Spartacus says:

    @Mary Furr:

    I’m deeply conflicted about trying to limit the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but those who downplay the horror of their use has obviously never suited up in full NBC gear and tried to function effectively in combat (or training exercise).

    I don’t think anyone is downplaying the horror. Rather, people are questioning whether 1,000 people killed by Syrian chemical weapons is a worse tragedy than the 1 million Rwandans that were hacked to death by machete or the 5 million Vietnamese that were burned to death by the U.S. use of napalm. An “atrocity” is measured not only by the manner of death, but also by the volume of death. As bad as it is, the Syrian case is rather mild compared to all the other atrocities that the “leading” countries did not see fit to stop.

    This question of intervening to stop Assad’s chemical weapons use is bothersome also because we seem to consider how horrible chemical weapon use is only when we want to go to war against a disfavored regime. For example, not only did we not go to war against Iraq when Saddam used chemical weapons to kill 100,000 Iranians, we actually helped him do it. And, of course, we used chemicals to kill 5 million Vietnamese in a way that is as horrific as any death possible. Consequently, it’s easy to question whether Assad’s use of chemical weapons is nothing more than a pretext for a war that is already favored by those who seem to always want war.

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  31. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @rudderpedals:

    I haven’t thought about it before, I’ll try to rank some of these in order of increasing repulsion:

    Bludgeoning and cutting weapons
    Less-inhumane projectiles
    Explosives
    Timed and trap weapons
    Really awful projectiles (flechettes for ex)
    Poisons
    Bioweapons

    Wow, no stoning? No being burned at the stake? What are you thinking man???

    On the slightly more serious side, obviously enough you have never seen a man beaten to death with a baseball bat. And neither have I, for the record, but I have seen the results of what happens when a man gets a brick upside his head (repeatedly) (ugly beyond imagination) and I have seen people shot and stabbed. None of them said, “Thank God it wasn’t poison!” or “Thank God it wasn’t the bubonic plague!”

    Really, you are emotionally invested in your position on the argument, and I understand that and where you are coming from. To some extant I feel the same, but the truth is, I have seen people shot and stabbed, and their screams were no less filled with terror.

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  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mary Furr:

    If we look at it from the 50,000 ft level it’s about enforcing human norms for civilized war when political means are not possible to resolve a conflict.

    Say what????? What about war is civilized????

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  33. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Mary Furr:

    but those who downplay the horror of their use has obviously never suited up in full NBC gear and tried to function effectively in combat (or training exercise).

    And those who think this training is the most horrible thing ever have never faced death up close and personal? And seen how impersonal it really is? Much less the true horror of it? The many and varied ways death can be inflicted upon another?

    Are you trying to say that a combat training exercise is worse than what REALLY happened on the streets of South St Louis everyday in the 80s & 90s?

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  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: And I have to say (I suppose) that what happened in south St Louis is not comparable to the real horror that is going on in Syria right now. But it is a hell of a lot more real than what happens in a combat training exercise. Real blood. Real screams. Real fear. Real revulsion.

    Thank Dog I live in the quiet, verdant hills and hollers of Washington Co now. I hope I never have to scrape somebodies screaming children off the streets again.

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  35. Mary Furr says:

    @OzarkHillbilly
    @Spartacus
    I certainly don’t disagree your statements about the numbers of people killed in various conflicts, the horror of war, nor the hypocrisy of some (most? especially Reagan’s?) American interventions. You completely misunderstood my point about the claustrophobic, immobilizing terror experienced when trying to operate effectively full NBC gear, but, of course, you know that. The both of you sound like very principled people with great compassion for those who suffer in war. I feel a burden for the death of innocents, too. Where we may differ is that I believe there will always be war, just like there will always be thugs who gain the power to create wars. I, therefore, believe that there should be conventions to minimize the (1) brutality of war, and (2) use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. As I said, in my original post, I am very conflicted about the Syrian situation, but, in my view, saying that the use of chemical/biological weapons should be classified the same as any other type of warfare is ignoring reality. Smart bombs and drones are an important issue to be addressed by society, but trying to drag them into the discussion about Syria is unhelpful.And as far as Rwanda goes: We should have stopped the carnage, but the world lacked the moral courage to do so.

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  36. Anonne says:

    Elicit, not illicit. Elicit is a verb. Illicit is an adjective.

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  37. Laurence Bachmann says:

    @Mary Furr: Actually, Mary, drones and smart bombs are precisely on point in this discussion. It is more than a little hypocritical to demand Syria obey international law when the US has regularly disregarded it for a dozen years. It is precisely this double standard that isolates us when we need and want allies and plays into the hands of Russia and China, who can argue we have a double standard.

    Furthermore, we do not lack moral courage. We (and you and the president) lack the LEGAL AUTHORITY to intervene. We have treaties and conventions PRECISELY FOR CIRCUMSTANCES LIKE THIS ONE and they require us to seek UN approval. We may think Russia wrong to withhold its consent, but to blithely ignore the treaties and conventions we signed is illegal, hypocritical and arrogant.

    Lastly, when 80% of your fellow citizens and 98% the world tells you you are wrong you may want to entertain the idea that they are not all mistaken. Perhaps a disregard for the law by the world’s greatest power IS more dangerous than Assad. It not only breaks the law: it enables others to do so as well. I have no doubt your intentions are good; I also have no doubt the road to hell is paved

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  38. john personna says:

    There is only one way to read James’ comment:

    ‘Let’s ditch the chemical weapons ban, as not useful, and not really backed by the UN.’

    I consider that a poor response to “conflict fatigue.” It rolls back too much.

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  39. john personna says:

    @Laurence Bachmann:

    Are you sure you didn’t help pave that road with that argument?

    ‘Let’s not care, because we are even worse than Assad.’

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  40. Mary Furr says:

    @Laurence Bachmann:
    I’m new at speaking up in this group, but I have a couple of observations:

    (1) People have a tendency to assume what is in other people’s hearts. This is a forum for dialogue with the aim to learn from one another, I would hope, not a place to pigeon-hole contributors who may present an alternative point-of-view–especially when they are put in the wrong pigeon-hole.

    (2) The more personal and assumption-laden the response, the more I suspect that a nerve has been hit. In this case the nerves are (1) the notion that there IS something about chemical weapons that requires special consideration about their deployment, and (2) the US and its allies DO need to consider how to intervene appropriately if the moral and military imperatives to stop chemical warfare conflict with dysfunctional legal and political processes.

    Just for the record, I’m a bleeding heart liberal who left the military when I could not in good conscience support Reagan’s dealings in Central America and the Middle East. As I said, I’m deeply conflicted about intervention in Syria, but I’ve limited my comments on this article to Jame Joyner’s question: Does some killing matter more than other killing?

    I do agree with your observation that drones and smart bombs would be deployed if we intervene. I also believe that it’s healthy to discuss how and when they are deployed. I just don’t think its helpful to equate them with chemical weapons–unless, of course, they carry chemical armaments.

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  41. rudderpedals says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I think I’ve got your stoning covered under projectiles….

    You got me on flames. That’s OK, enumerating and ranking violent horror is revolting enough without the crisped bits of meat clinging to loops of viscera littering the floor of this abattoir/thread. You amongst others worth reading like Washington Monthly’s Saturday writer, Ezra Klenin, some others, seem to be leading to the argument that because everyone is going to die there’s no moral ground for singling out particularly heinous conscious shocking beyond the pale sorts of inhumanity typified by the intentional deployment of pesticides to exterminate people.

    I get pacifism. I am not a pacifist but I respect those who are. To those who are not pacifists but are hung up on how the use of nerve gas can make a difference because nothing is being done about the other 40,000 men and women (everyday) without the help of nerve gas: How does ignoring this instance of human extermination help reduce inhumanity going forward?

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  42. Spartacus says:

    @Mary Furr:

    Where we may differ is that I believe there will always be war, just like there will always be thugs who gain the power to create wars. I, therefore, believe that there should be conventions to minimize the (1) brutality of war, and (2) use of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.

    I don’t think this is where we differ because I, too, believe all of these things. I think where we differ is on what, if anything, should be done when the established conventions have been violated.

    There may be an international norm and even an established convention against the use of NBC weapons, but there absolutely is not any kind of norm or established convention on how to deal with a violation of the convention against NBC use. Both the world’s approach and the U.S. approach to violations of the norm against NBC are sporadic and inconsistent. Sometimes we intervene; sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the intervention is military; sometimes it’s not. When examined closely, the likely conclusion one will make is that the U.S. supports military intervention in response to NBC use only when the offending regime is disfavored for reasons other than its use of NBC.

    The absence of a norm or convention on how to respond to the use of NBC means that it’s hard to argue that Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons is so horrific an atrocity that it demands a military response even though many other NBC uses that were far more tragic than Assad’s did not receive a military response.

    It’s also impossible to escape the argument that 1,000 Syrian deaths from chemical weapons is worse than 1 million deaths from machete or 5 million deaths from napalm. Now, admittedly, there doesn’t seem to be an international norm or established convention against machete deaths. And for reaons that seem to make no sense at all, deaths from napalm don’t seem to count as chemical weapon use, but all of this simply calls into question the entire rationale of establishing norms and conventions against the manner of death, but not the amount of death.

    Maybe the current opposition to a military intervention in Syria is the result of the American public and the rest of the world re-thinking the norm against chemical weapon use. Maybe the norm is evolving to take into account both the type and the amount of death. Reasonable, well-meaning people can oppose this evolution, but they’ll have to explain why, in the face of past sporadic and inconsistent responses to NBC use, this evolution is not practical and prudent.

    Lastly, there simply doesn’t appear to be a response to Assad’s chemical weapon use that doesn’t either (a) make the situation in Syria worse than it already is, or (b) completely undermine the purpose of our response. That is, we’re either going to strike Assad so hard that his regime is toppled without any plan to prevent the greater atrocities that will flow from that, or the strike will be so weak that Assad will remain in power, which means that he will have used chemical weapons to tip the civil war in his favor and, by remaining in power, he will have received the benefit of his use of chemical weapons.

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  43. stonetools says:

    @Spartacus:

    I don’t think anyone is downplaying the horror. Rather, people are questioning whether 1,000 people killed by Syrian chemical weapons is a worse tragedy than the 1 million Rwandans that were hacked to death by machete or the 5 million Vietnamese that were burned to death by the U.S. use of napalm. An “atrocity” is measured not only by the manner of death, but also by the volume of death. As bad as it is, the Syrian case is rather mild compared to all the other atrocities that the “leading” countries did not see fit to stop.

    Of course, the point is that we should have done more to stop or avoid those atrocities, NOT that we should simply ignore the present atrocity because we did not see fit to stop atrocities in the past . The atrocity of slavery was ignored for most of human history until the world decided starting in the 19th century to put a stop to it-an effort that has been mostly successful but is still ongoing. We don’t let off modern day slavers because we condoned and practiced slavery in the past.
    Of all the arguments against intervention, this argument is maybe the worst.

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  44. stonetools says:

    @Spartacus:

    LKastly, there simply doesn’t appear to be a response to Assad’s chemical weapon use that doesn’t either (a) make the situation in Syria worse than it already is, or (b) completely undermine the purpose of our response.

    So, doing nothing at all is actually worse than doing something that may or may not work?

    Let’s be blunt: doing nothing to all sends one clear message to Assad and all future chemical warriors: unrestricted chemical warfare is fine, so long as you are not killing folks we like.
    You might piously tell yourself that you are not green-lighting future chemical warfare, but future leaders looking at the situation don’t care about your internal feelings: they just care about whether they can gas away without interference.

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  45. Paull says:

    Are agent orange, napalm, white phosphorus and depleted uranium chemical weapons and if not would it be ok for assad to use them

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  46. stonetools says:

    Nevertheless, the universal revulsion that followed World War I led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which banned the use, though not the possession, of chemical and biological weapons. In effect from 1928, the protocol is one of the few treaties that have been almost universally accepted and become an international norm. Syria, too, is a signatory.

    Note that the generation that had the most experience with chemical warfare banned it. Interestingly, their heirs-who thanks to their good work never experienced chemical warfare-now see the ban as not worth enforcing.
    I’ll be blunt- one of the reasons, IMO, that folks want to overlook the use of chemical weapons here is that the people getting gassed aren’t blond , fair skinned folks with names like Doug and James- they’re brown skinned Muslims named Abdul and Majid. If they were the first kind of folks, the deterring strikes would have already started. Syrians just aren’t very sympathetic to Americans , especially since we know that many of the rebels are al-Qaeda related. Now many of the civilians gassed probably don’t give a damn about al-Qaeda , but hey, a useful political smear is useful.
    In the meantime, recent history shows that air campaigns have thrice been successfully used to deter governments engaging in atrocities, (Libya, Bosnia and Kosovo), but why pay attention to history when ideology tells us you that any intervention will certainly fail?

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  47. Matt Bernius says:

    @stonetools:

    In the meantime, recent history shows that air campaigns have thrice been successfully used to deter governments engaging in atrocities, (Libya, Bosnia and Kosovo), but why pay attention to history when ideology tells us you that any intervention will certainly fail?

    First, using “thrice” here is a little bit of a dodge as Bosnia and Kosovo were the same conflict.

    Second, let us not forget that Bosnia and Kosovo INVOLVED BOOTS ON THE GROUND. It wasn’t just air strikes — there was an existing force of peace keepers working on the ground.

    Third, in the case of Libya, it was a multi-national (NATO) effort with the expressed goal of assisting the Rebel forces in overthrowing the regime. And it was far more than just air support (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_military_intervention_in_Libya ).

    What is being *publicly* discussed for Syria in no way resembles any of these efforts.

    To be clear, my opposition has nothing to do with the color of anyone’s skin, other than to point out that our historic Military Interventions in the Middle East Near Asia region have typically screwed up the lives of brown people for generations. If I thought we were able to avoid that this time around, I’d happily switch my support. But looking historically, going at least as far back as Lawrence of Arabia, it’s hard to build that argument.

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  48. Matt Bernius says:

    @Spartacus:

    Lastly, there simply doesn’t appear to be a response to Assad’s chemical weapon use that doesn’t either (a) make the situation in Syria worse than it already is, or (b) completely undermine the purpose of our response.

    This is the point that I WISH interventionists would address within the context of what the President is currently asking for.

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  49. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    Of all the arguments against intervention, this argument is maybe the worst.

    You’re attacking an argument I haven’t made. I didn’t raise the example of other atrocities that were not punished for the purpose of arguing that the current chemical weapon use should also go unpunished. I raised the example of other atrocities to demonstrate that, contrary to the interventionist argument, there is no international norm of responding to atrocities. Consequently, the claim by interventionists that a failure to respond militarily now will undermine international norms is flat-out baseless.

    If you want to argue for intervention you’ll have to come up with a different argument, and you’ll have to respond to the arguments that opponents of intervention make – not the arguments that they haven’t made.

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  50. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    So, doing nothing at all is actually worse than doing something that may or may not work? Let’s be blunt: doing nothing to all sends one clear message to Assad and all future chemical warriors: unrestricted chemical warfare is fine, so long as you are not killing folks we like.

    I would think that your strong conviction that we should do “something” would be predicated on an equally strong conviction about what that “something” is and that you would couple it with a compelling argument that it would make the Syrian situation better – not worse. Instead of doing this, however, you’re merely arguing that we’ve got to do “something” – whatever that may be.

    None of the interventionist arguments lay out a course of action that overcomes the fundamental problem that I described. Instead, it’s just this irrational, emotional argument that doing “something” is better than causing the deaths of more people or rewarding Assad for using chemical weapons.

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  51. Matt Bernius says:

    @stonetools:

    Let’s be blunt: doing nothing to all sends one clear message to Assad and all future chemical warriors: unrestricted chemical warfare is fine, so long as you are not killing folks we like.

    Again, as I pointed out in another thread, looking historically this is a weak argument. The last time Chemical Weapons were used by a State actor was in 1988 with the tacit approval of the United States (i.e. the soon to be last super power). And there was no sanction or military action taken against Iraq for their use.

    According to Interventionist’s current “norm” logic, the use of weapons in the Iran/Iraq war should have lead to an explosion in the use of chemical weapons. Yet it took 25 years for it to happen again.

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  52. Spartacus says:

    @stonetools:

    I’ll be blunt- one of the reasons, IMO, that folks want to overlook the use of chemical weapons here is that the people getting gassed aren’t blond , fair skinned folks with names like Doug and James- they’re brown skinned Muslims named Abdul and Majid.

    I obviously can’t speak for anyone else (although I think you’re wrong about Doug and James), but your argument makes absolutely no sense at all regarding the reasons I’ve given for not intervening.

    A military strike by the U.S. will kill some people in Syria. It will kill only the person responsible for chemical weapons use or it will also kill others who weren’t responsible. If it kills only the person who was responsible, many many more Syrians will be killed in the aftermath. If, on the other hand, the strike kills others who weren’t responsible, their deaths will have been unjustified. In either case, more brown skinned Muslims will die if we strike than will be the case if we don’t strike.

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  53. john personna says:

    @Paull:

    As long as you understand that you are arguing for increased use of chemical weapons, upon civilian population.

    You are arguing that since napalming a city would be as bad, go for it.

    This is something “minimizers” have not really come to grips with. If you reduce the barrier, then at the margin you increase the use of those weapons. Go ahead, Assad, US voters have called their Congressmen and said you get a pass.

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  54. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    What’s the point of an international ban if you continue that pattern? Give a pass, and hope it doesn’t happen again for 25 years?

    Good plan?

    Essentially you are arguing that the ban be repealed.

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  55. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Paull: Are agent orange, napalm, white phosphorus and depleted uranium chemical weapons and if not would it be ok for assad to use them

    The official definition of a chemical weapon is a weapon that kills or injures through a chemical process other than combustion. So that takes napalm and white phosphorus off the list.

    As for the other two, the official policy was that Agent Orange wasn’t intended to be used as a weapon against people, but as a herbicide. As an anti-person weapon, it simply wasn’t fast-acting enough to be effective.

    And depleted uranium is used for its density and hardness, making it a superb armor-piercing weapon. Its toxicity as a heavy metal is, again, too long-term to be useful on the battlefield.

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  56. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    There’s a school of thought that I don’t have an opinion on, but I think needs to be represented here: in war, the most “humane” weapons are those that end the war most quickly, and the most “inhumane” is that which makes war more palatable and prolonged. That is the core of the moral argument for the use of nuclear weapons on Japan; the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki negated the need for a wholesale invasion of the Japanese home islands, and the horrific numbers of dead on both sides that would have caused.

    And no, I’m not interested in arguing about that; I’m just citing it as an example of the thinking behind the argument.

    It’s a cold, hyperrational kind of argument, somewhat lacking in emotionalism (or, if you prefer, humanity), but it is hard to openly dismiss.

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  57. Kari Q says:

    Attacking Syria as a means of preventing more chemical weapons use would only make sense if we could be even moderately hopeful that the message that was taken from such an attack would be “We’re attacking because of chemical weapons usage.”

    There’s no reason to believe that other nations, especially Arab nations, would get that message. They don’t trust us, they don’t believe our states reasons, and they have good reason not to given our history in the region.

    In addition, any attack would be, in itself, a violation of international law which prohibits military action against another nation except in self-defense, making the case that we are upholding international law becomes quite difficult. Putting it all together, it’s hard to see how such attacks would have the impact the proponents claim.

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  58. john personna says:

    I think the best, moral, arguments do begin “I support an international ban on chemical weapons, but …” and then lay out some reason that the evidence side or the action side of the equation makes things difficult.

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  59. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:

    What’s the point of an international ban if you continue that pattern? Give a pass, and hope it doesn’t happen again for 25 years?

    What’s the point of an international ban if an international body isn’t interested in enforcing it?

    And what is the good of enforcement if it’s specifically designed to be symbolic versus actually punitive?

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  60. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    I am on the side of enforcing the ban, and so is the President.

    What is your moral foundation in opposition to us?

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  61. john personna says:

    (It is a pretty empty argument to say “I don’t care about the ban, so what is the point of a ban I don’t care about?”)

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  62. john personna says:

    (There really is no good argument on Matt’s side. As others have noted, it’s the “murders have escaped” logic. Since OJ got away with it, let’s call the whole thing off.)

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  63. Rob in CT says:

    All this business about “sending messages” is not exactly simple. Our messages are often terribly muddled, and I see no reason to believe that the recipients of another message would actually get it and respond the way we want.

    I also admit to being dubious of a message that reads: go ahead and kill as many people as you like, but no gassing them. It’s not that the message is worthless – it does have some value, as chemical weapons are nasty things that are really good only for killing civilians or poorly equipped soldiers. I just the potential cost (yet another ME intervention with some downside risk of quagmire and blowback, as per usual, with the added bonus of ignoring the UNSC, because Russia) exceeds the value. I’d rather not buy this one.

    Could I be wrong? Yes, sure I could. So could you pro- folks. Me, I’d rather err on the side of stay the f*ck out.

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  64. john personna says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Did anyone actually say “kill as many as you like?”

    Aren’t there also international norms on genocide?

    Again, the correct form is “I oppose genocide, but …” with your specific problems in identification and action following.

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  65. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:

    I am on the side of enforcing the ban, and so is the President.

    What is your moral foundation in opposition to us?

    Fair question:

    1. I reject the idea that a single country should unilaterally enforce any international “ban” — especially against a country that may not have signed onto the ban in the first place. I would feel much better about such action if a major treaty organization would sign on (Nato, League of Arab States, UN).

    2. I find it problematic that our unilateral enforcement of one norm requires breaking other international norms.

    3. Given our country’s history of violating international norms, I question the supposed “moral high ground” that we are operating from.

    4. I question this based on the fact that by all accounts the “enforcement” is fundamentally designed to be symbolic (‘teach him a lesson without causing any serious harm that would teach him a lesson) versus actually punitive. That seems to be much more about making US feel good than actually seriously attempting to stop Assad. I honestly would be more in favor of concerted effort to punish Assad through a removal from power. It would be a punishment that would actually have force behind it and I think it would be a far more honest statement of the Obama administration’s actual intent. And it would allow us, as a nation, to have a much more honest debate on the subject.

    5. While I tend to believe that Assad is responsible for the attack, the fact is that this enforcement will come without any finding of criminal “guilt”. Given what we know about how past Administrations tended to only examine the evidence that supported the case for actions they wanted to take, and the fact that the Obama administration has been interested in intervening in Syria for quite some time, I am not willing to accept the Administrations account without a hefty load of skepticism. And I’m not willing to punish without an actual finding of fact.

    6. Ultimately the notion of punishment needs to be tempered with broader questions of the ancillary effects of said punishment. I am not yet convinced that our symbolic enforcement wouldn’t make the lives of the average citizen worse while having little to no effect on Assad himself. Sadly, the history of such interventions and sanctions in the Middle East, Near Asia region very much supports that supposition.

    There you have it — 6 more-or-less moral arguments against a moral argument for what appears to be an empty enforcement.

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  66. Matt Bernius says:

    @Rob in CT:

    All this business about “sending messages” is not exactly simple. Our messages are often terribly muddled, and I see no reason to believe that the recipients of another message would actually get it and respond the way we want.

    This is a critical point as well. Again, given the symbolic nature of the attack — the fact that it can’t do enough damage to do substantive damage to the Assad regime — its easy to see how it actually empowers Assad.

    He get’s to say “The US bombed us and I’m still in control. Behold my ability to stand up to the enemies within and the World’s Super Power.”

    I seem to remember Saddam Hussein saying the same thing for years.

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  67. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    1. Isn’t that like saying that it isn’t the murder that matters, but only the jurisdiction? Also, given the dynamics of the Security Council veto (designed to prevent World War rather than to ensure justice), we pretty much ensure a pass for any crime by any nation with a “friend” on the SC.

    2. A unilateral action would be hard to sell. A coalition starts to look like an International Agreement, by a separate international path. The UN may aspire to be the preeminent international organization, but how much moral authority do they hold, when they do punt on genocide (by any means)?

    3. That would be “a dirty cop can’t make a murder arrest” argument.

    4. A “symbolic” action also sets the expectation for future despots with chemical weapons. If they only think a chemical weapons use is worth a few cruise missiles at some of their own resources, that may give them pause. And that pause may be worth the cost.

    5. Again, UN, punts, friends on the Security Council, moral authority.

    6. This is kind of a repeat of “4.”

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  68. Franklin says:

    @john personna: I am on the side of the international community enforcing the ban. If that helps any.

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  69. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:

    (There really is no good argument on Matt’s side. As others have noted, it’s the “murders have escaped” logic. Since OJ got away with it, let’s call the whole thing off.)

    Given that what is been planned so far — a punishment that inflicts no serious damage — I have a hard time seeing how we’re not going to let Assad off the hook while make ourselves feel better for doing “something.”

    Hell, even OJ was eventually severely punished via the civil courts.

    If you are arguing for a “moral” imperative to punish, then it needs to be an actual punishment.

    Please explain how cruise missile/bomb strikes on a handful of military targets that are designed to send a message without actually aiding the rebels in any substantive way is a punishment. At best, what we are doing is responding with another warning to “please not do it again or we’ll have to escalate a bit more, but still not enough to actually change anything.”

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  70. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    Yes, “a few cruise missiles” would be like the fallback, getting OJ in civil court.

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  71. john personna says:

    Let’s pause to note that if the UN were designed for justice there would be no single-country veto.

    The veto is there as a circuit breaker and to prevent powerful countries, the holders of Security Council seats, from becoming too much at odds.

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  72. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:

    1. Isn’t that like saying that it isn’t the murder that matters, but only the jurisdiction?

    Yes. And in fact that is actually the case if we are dealing with a nation or a world of laws. Otherwise what we are discussing is vigilantism. Would you support the government of Saudi Arabia sending in an elite team to capture or assassinate anyone involved with the torture of their nationals post 9/11? Because that is essentially what you are arguing for.

    Also, given the dynamics of the Security Council veto (designed to prevent World War rather than to ensure justice), we pretty much ensure a pass for any crime by any nation with a “friend” on the SC.

    Again, you are delivering an argument for vigilantism. You also leave off the fact that, beyond the Security Council there are other organizations that could join this action but are choosing not to.

    Also, ultimately, how is this sort of argument any different than John Bolton arguing that the UN is irrelevant and the US should do what it wants to because it’s the US.

    2. A unilateral action would be hard to sell. A coalition starts to look like an International Agreement, by an separate international path. The UN may aspire to be the preeminent international organization, but how much moral authority do they hold, when they do punt on genocide (by any means)?

    I read this as: “The system won’t give me what I want, so I will ignore the system.” So much for rule of “international law.”

    3. That would be “a dirty cop can’t make a murder arrest” argument.

    Of course, the Dirty Cop is still given authority to arrest by the State. She’s not simply arresting because she wants to. We have been given no authority to act. No international body has elected or appointed the US as world policeman.

    At best, then, our authority comes from our own moral high ground. And as I keep pointing out, we don’t even have that (we allowed, if not tacitly approved of, the last State sponsored Chemical Weapons strike which was far more extensive, and we’ve violated countless international norms since then).

    So I don’t see where we get the moral authority to enforce. And you have yet to answer that.

    4. A “symbolic” action also sets the expectation for future despots with chemical weapons. If they only think a chemical weapons use is worth a few cruise missiles at some of their own resources, that may give them pause. And that pause may be worth the cost.

    Ummm… really? If that’s what you believe, more power to you. I deeply disagree with this. But either way, it’s not a particularly “moral” argument in support of an attack.

    5. Again, UN, punts, friends on the Security Council, moral authority.

    Again, can you restate where the “moral authority” comes from, because I’ve clearly missed it or we have a very different understanding of “moral authority” (which is entirely possible).

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  73. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    Sorry, you are rolling right past the argument.

    It was:

    – if there is a crime
    – if there is international agreement
    – then there is moral authority for enforcement

    It’s nit-picky to say that if one individual, Vladimir Putin, puts down a veto, then there is nothing.

    What you’ve really said is that if China or Russia are good with any genocide or chemical weapons use, from here on out, so are you.

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  74. john personna says:

    (A no-vote in the UN General Assembly would be a different sort of thing.)

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  75. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:
    Two points that I think highlight the difference in our views (and my issue with your position):

    Let’s pause to note that if the UN were designed for justice there would be no single-country veto.

    You are fixated on the concept of “justice” without being willing to acknowledge that it is always tempered by the concept of “law.” The two exist in a dialectic. Neither is perfect, but the moment one or the other is over-emphasized the system gets out of control.

    But, sticking for the moment with your deeply held belief that “justice” is necessary, it immediately seems that you are more interested in symbolic justice than actual justice. By that I mean:

    Yes, “a few cruise missiles” would be like the fallback, getting OJ in civil court.

    You miss my larger point. The Civil Court bankrupted OJ. It delivered a punishing punishment. It was delivering the “justice” that the criminal courts did not.

    In what way is what is being proposed for Assad “justice”? The only justice in this case would be the removal of Assad from power. But that is expressly not what is being publicly discussed or promised.

    You can’t morally argue for the purity and importance of a certain concept (i.e. justice) and at the same time advocate for a hollow expression of it. Do you see the disconnect?

    What’s being proposed is at best a “message” or a “warning” — that’s different than “justice.” It still might be worth pursuing, but if you’re making the argument for it, don’t involve Justice in name only.

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  76. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:

    Sorry, you are rolling right past the argument.

    It was:

    – if there is a crime
    – if there is international agreement
    – then there is moral authority for enforcement

    It’s nit-picky to say that if one individual, Vladimir Putin, puts down a veto, then there is nothing.

    If this is the core of your argument, then it seems to me that both of us may be rolling right by it (or at least the parts neither of us like).

    Te problem is that the US enforcement, which you are ultimately making a moral argument for, has not even finished step one in your process — which I should not is not simple “if there is a crime” but “if someone is found guilty of that crime.”

    Look, I don’t know how else to say it, but right now I see little difference between the argument assembled by the Obama administration against Assad and the argument assembled by the Bush administration against Saddam. There has been no legal finding of fact (i.e. by an actual international body). If you care about the overall process, then this has to be done.

    In my opinion your entire conception of Moral Authority hinges on the international agreement. And yet, you want to do an end run around it when the very structure designed to provide international agreement doesn’t act in the way you want it to act.

    You are all for holding up treaties up until the moment that you don’t like the results of holding up treaties.

    Byt, ultimately, you and I clearly have a different conception of “moral authority” in a case like this. And I don’t think either of us is going to shift.

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  77. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    You are fixated on the concept of “justice” without being willing to acknowledge that it is always tempered by the concept of “law.”

    What you’ve said there, straight up, is that you do accept Chinese and Russian veto protection for any evil in the world. Since it is “law” it is good enough for you.

    I’m sure you/we could review old Chinese and Russian vetoes which you did not actually support … but at this point we know it is superfluous to the argument. No right thinking moralist or ethicist is going to accept that sort of blank check.

    OK, to name one, Chinese occupation of Tibet is fine, because the Security Council says so:

    International response: No country openly disputes China’s claim to sovereignty, and China has blocked all UN Security Council resolutions on Tibet since the People’s Republic took over the China seat in the UN in 1971.

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  78. john personna says:

    BTW, my argument is _strongest_ when there is international agreement about some atrocity.

    That does not mean there is no moral case without it. You might get in a High Noon situation, where good men do not stand for justice.

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  79. Matt Bernius says:

    @john personna:
    While I think that any more back and forth on the topic at hand probably doesn’t make any sense due to the entrenched nature of our positions, I do want to respond to this:

    What you’ve said there, straight up, is that you do accept Chinese and Russian veto protection for any evil in the world. Since it is “law” it is good enough for you.

    Yes. Especially since the very same laws provides protection for us (the US) and a number of other nations in the world when we do things that the Chinese and Russians perceive as “evil.” And I appreciate that also means that the same laws allow the US to engage in normative evil acts. But that’s the case of all laws. But taken on the whole, history proves over and over again that justice works best tempered by laws.

    Again, as often is the case in these arguments, I think the words of Robert Bolt in his play “A Man for All Seasons”:

    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

    William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

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  80. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    I get you, but can’t quite do the “path on the head” for Assad.

    Because he has Russian friends, and not because he used no chemical weapons, and certainly not because “the west” gives him a pass on 100,000 civilian deaths … he walks.

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  81. john personna says:

    (Matt’s whole framework would be better saved for some innocent land, or ruler.)

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