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The Fundamental Weakness of the Case for Attacking Syria

[ 313 ] September 5, 2013 |

I should probably explain further why I think Congress shouldn’t authorize an attack on Syria, piggybacking on a couple of the points raised by Paul below.

The fundamental case for war rests on “red lines,” that the sacred convention against the use of chemical weapons must be defended with force. I think this from Stephen Walt is exactly right:

Yet we now appear to be getting ready to drop a lot of ordnance on Syria — and for a pretty flimsy reason. John Kerry is outraged that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons — or so he believes — but as I’ve noted before, that fact (if true) is not dispositive. Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases. Yes, chemical weapons are illegal and yes, there’s a taboo against their use, but going to war solely to reinforce a rather unimportant norm is a poor reason. The fact that Assad is killing innocent people with this particular tool and not some other equally nasty tool is not by itself a reason to get involved.

This argument for attacking Syria is a close relative of the arguments made by the Bush administration for invading Iraq, which at their heart involved a category of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that conflated nuclear weapons with a bunch of other weapons that offered no more killing capacity than weapons you could fashion with materials that could be picked up at any Home Depot. (Even if they hadn’t been lying, the justification was utterly inadequate.) There’s no good reason why the people Assad has killed with chemical weapons represent a better reason to go to bomb Syria than the many, many more people he’s killed with conventional weapons.

But let’s assume arguendo that the norm is finally worth using military means to protect, unlike the previous times the norm was broached. For an attack to be justified, there has to be a good argument that it would produce a deterrent effect that’s worth the substantial human and financial costs. The Drum post that Paul linked below raises one obvious counterpoint: the lesson that future dictators would take from an attack on Assad would be much likely to be “if you want to use chemical weapons make sure your military is strong enough to make a military response to costly” than “never ever use chemical weapons.” And I think the problems with the deterrence argument go well beyond that. There’s a fundamental disjuncture between the proposed means and the proposed ends:

  • Taking the Obama administration at its word that it intends just to spend a couple days launching missiles at Syria without any realistic expectation of fundamentally altering the balance of power in the civil war (let alone regime change), it seems obvious that the deterrent effect is too trivial to justify the attack.  We’re apparently positing a dictator who would be perfectly willing to slaughter his own citizens (with CHEMICAL WEAPONS! Which is much worse than using bullets or bombs because something something) but would be unwilling to do so if it resulted in some people and infrastructure in his country would be blown up without threatening his hold on power?  “Implausible” is the charitable way of putting it.  It’s not clear how this kind of attack strengthens the norm against using chemical weapons in any substantive way, and given that the response involves killing innocent people the burden of proof is on proponents to explain why this is something other than empty symbolism.
  • A military response dedicated to regime change might be a genuine deterrent (although limited for the reasons Drum cites.)  But essentially no non-crazy person believes that the norm against chemical weapons justifies an invasion likely to be a debacle to rival Iraq, particularly since the end result would almost certainly be the replacement of one illberal regime with another only with much more chaos and suffering.  And this isn’t what the Obama administration, for obvious reasons, is proposing.
  • In addition, while the general unwillingness of America’s allies to go along does not in itself mean an attack is unwise (cf. the post-2008 European consensus on macroeconomic policy), in this context a near-unilateral attack would be problematic.  It’s hard to make the case that you’re attacking Syria to defend international norms when most signatories of the convention against chemical weapons don’t believe an attack is justified in response to the breach.

The case for attacking Syria fails on multiple levels.  The best-case scenario is pretty much that a limited amount of destruction is inflicted on Syria pointlessly.  Congress should say no.

…Ezra has more in a similar vein.  And here.

Comments (313)

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  1. Congress should say no.

    Exactly so, Scott. As an added bonus, voting “no” might, just might, become a marker upon which those who want to push back against executive expansion can build upon. In which case, a Congress which votes “no,” for whatever stupid reason, might not just be avoiding involving the U.S. in an unnecessary evil, but even be doing a small positive good.

    • cpinva says:

      “just saying no” isn’t sufficient. pres. Obama can act unilaterally, under the war powers act. congress would need to bar the use of any funds, for an attack on Syria, and would need to do so with veto proof majorities. not sure this congress, especially the house, is functional enough to accomplish this.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Recommended reading, especially for Imperial apologists :

    http://www.juancole.com/2013/09/wants-superpower-engelhardt.html

    • Russia Today, Live from the Kremlin says:

      You talkin’ to me?

      • Anonymous says:

        Tom Englehardt is not RT. He writes for Tomdispatch.com.

        • Russia Today, Live from the Kremlin says:

          You said “Imperial Apologists.”

          But Syria is Russia’s back yard, as all good anti-imperialists know.

          And stop calling me an apologist!

          • Anonymous says:

            Russia is not an imperial power and hasn’t been since 1991. There is only one Empire in the world today, the American one.

            • Dana Houle says:

              Funny how it’s evidently still 1990 in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus…

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Chechnya, Syria…

                • Dana Houle says:

                  Chechnya is different. Their actions in Chechnya, to Chechens and justified because of the Chechnya conflict are appalling, but it’s a separatist movement, and thus is different than imperialism.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  It’s still about keeping together the old empire.

                • ajay says:

                  it’s a separatist movement, and thus is different than imperialism.

                  Algeria was also a separatist movement. The Algerians wanted to separate from France.

                • Dana Houle says:

                  And Algeria wasn’t contiguous to France and hadn’t been part of France for centuries, whereas Chechnya has been part of Russia for hundreds of years.

                  If you want to make a comparison to France, the more apt would be Brittany, or maybe the French Basque country (but even that doesn’t work because unlike the Basque, or Kurds, Hmong, Armenians, Quechua etc, Chechens aren’t dispersed among multiple countries).

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  Having a sphere of influence is different from being an imperial power.

                  At any rate, how Russia treats Georgia isn’t much worse than how we treat Cuba.

                • J. Otto Pohl says:

                  Chechnya only came under any type of Russian rule in 1785 and there has been perennial armed resistance in favor of independence since then. Most notably the guerrilla war led by Shamil in 1834-1859. So if you count the integration of Chechnya into the Russian Empire from the crushing of Shamil’s Emirate it was later than the French conquest of Algeria in 1830. The existence of a water barrier is totally irrelevant. There are lots of historical instances of colonial conquest without water barriers. China and Tibet, the US and countless Native American nations, South Africa and Namibia, Indonesia and East Timor, Israel and the West Bank, etc., etc. Chechens are in fact dispersed among a number of separate countries. There are sizable Chechen communities in Daghestan, Moscow, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Jordan, and France. It is also true that much of this dispersal is due to forced deportation under first the Tsars then Stalin and the two post-Soviet Chechen Wars.

                • Manny Kant says:

                  Algeria had been French territory for 120 years – that seems comparable to how long Chechnya had been Russian territory.

                • Dana Houle says:

                  Not really. Russia had been mucking around in the Caucuses long before France took over Algeria…which, by the way, was after the British had taken over the Indian sub-continent. Legally Algeria became part of France, but it was more of a classic 19th century colonial territory, at least until the pied noir started coming in large numbers.

                  Chechnya may have always chaffed at Russian rule, and I’m not saying their secession movement isn’t legitimate–I don’t have an opinion–but sharing a border with Russia on one side and having a massive and barely passable mountain range on the other, all shoved in between a massive sea and the largest lake in the world, is a lot different than a place the French treated not that differently than the Brits treated Rhodesia.

                • ajay says:

                  sharing a border with Russia on one side and having a massive and barely passable mountain range on the other, all shoved in between a massive sea and the largest lake in the world, is a lot different than a place the French treated not that differently than the Brits treated Rhodesia.

                  For most of the period in question, it would be a hell of a lot easier and quicker to get from the French capital to Algeria than it would be to get from the Russian capital to Grozny.

                  The “yes we invaded, crushed the local population, dispossessed them and seized their land but there’s a land border so it doesn’t count as an empire” argument is very popular with Russians (and Americans!) for pretty obvious reasons, but that doesn’t make it right.

                • Dana Houle says:

                  I’m not saying it’s right, I’m saying it’s different.

                  And yes, it would have been easier to get to Paris from Algiers than to Moscow from Grozny. But it probably would also have been easier to get from Algiers to Cairo or Istanbul or Marrakesh or Timbuktu than from Grozny to Aden or Bombay or Cairo or Samarkand or probably even to Istanbul. I’m just saying that Algeria fits more in the 19th century overseas empire model than does Chechnya, which wasn’t an overseas acquisition but a contiguous expansion and has been part of Russia longer than Vladivostok, Sakhalin and parts of the frontier with Khazakhstan, and only a few decades less than Russia has had any of the Black Sea or Sea of Azov coasts.

                  Note also, the European borders of France were largely settled (other than disputes about Alsace-Lorraine) by the 18th century. Algeria was tacked on after France had stopped expanding outward on contiguous territory from its center. Also, Chechnya has been part of Russia since roughly the times of the Oregon Treaty, the Mexican Secession, the Gadsen Purchase, the Alaska Purchase and the de-facto annexation of Hawaii.

                  Again, I’m not saying any of that makes Chechen independence illegitimate, just that it’s a very different case than most other cases of what we think of imperialism, because it’s not disconnected from the imperial country’s landmass, it’s encompassed in it.

                • New Winner of the Unprincipled Olympics says:

                  Dilan Esper says:
                  September 5, 2013 at 11:36 am
                  Having a sphere of influence is different from being an imperial power.

                • Dana Houle says:

                  Oh, another thing: Grozny was founded by the Russians, in 1818. It didn’t exist until they built a fort there.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  Unprincipled Olympics:

                  The sine qua non of justifications for warfare is defensiveness. If something happens close by, there’s often a stronger case for defense. That’s not unprincipled.

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    This.

    Have you noticed, by the way, that many if not most arguments for military action largely boil down to “what else do you propose doing?”….essentially relying on military action as a kind of default option. See, for example, Nick Kristof’s column today. Eleven ‘graphs bemoaning the horrors of what’s going on in Syria (it is horrible, though chemical use is just a small part of the horror) and noting that inaction won’t solve these problems (it won’t), before finally turning to military action itself and basically saying “hey…who’s to say it won’t work?” After putting off trying to make the case for war for most of the column, Kristof’s “argument” basically boils down to noting that military actions do not always fail and asserting that military action might deter Assad without even trying to explain how that might work.

    • Anonymous says:

      The MIC has to use those expensive weapons sometime so they can get orders new ones…that’s what this really boils down to. Like good little capitalists, war opens up new “markets” through destroying old ones.

    • GoDeep says:

      the lesson that future dictators would take from an attack on Assad would be much likely to be “if you want to use chemical weapons make sure your military is strong enough to make a military response to costly” than “never ever use chemical weapons.”

      Yes and no. Clearly that has been N. Korea’s calculation, and it appears to be Iran’s calculation.

      BUT–the US spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. Just as we did with the USSR we can make it a VERY costly calculation. As you’ll recall it was such a costly calculation that the USSR imploded. Literally.

      Moreover, if we want to keep the costs of deterrence down, then we need to enforce our own red lines when its cheap. Otherwise when countries like Iran realize they can flout the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty it will be quite costly indeed to enforce.

      • Snarki, child of Loki says:

        OKAY! So bombs away on Union Carbide for their Bhopal gassing!

        I think UC wins in the “number of casualties” category, but it still remains to be seen whether Assad or UC has a more convincing “whoopsie!” explanation.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      I was planning to pitch a response to Kristof to my TAP editors. It’s the ultimate example of what I’m talking about here.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Not so fast on the chemical weapons claims, btw.

  5. Ronan says:

    What about a bombing to try and force Assad to negotiate with the oppossition? (and vice versa)

    • Anonymous says:

      This is not in the character of an empire like the modern USA to do. It wants total victory over its foes by even the dirtiest means possible (cluster bombs, depleted uranium, white phosphorous) and gross hypocritical double standards (when our allies used chemical weapons, we did nothing).

      • njorl says:

        There is no logical argument against depleted uranium munitions which goes beyond “war is bad”. Every conceivable munition which would replace depleted uranium in any mission has a higher expectation of collateral damage.

        If you want to argue that we shouldn’t attack someone, that’s wonderful. If you are saying we should use HE ordnance or tungsten KE ordnance instead of DU, then you are arguing in favor of killing extra civilians pointlessly.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      That was one of the explicit goals of the Bosnia bombing campaign.

      • toberdog says:

        Which took how long, 79 days, something like that?

        • joe from Lowell says:

          21. You’re thinking of Kosovo.

          • toberdog says:

            OK, my mistake. But 21 days of bombing Syria?

              • toberdog says:

                My point is, the record of these things seems to suggest that bombing to force diplomacy takes an extended campaign, and I don’t think anyone is contemplating bombing Syria for anywhere near as long as three weeks. At least, I hope not.

                • Manny Kant says:

                  If bombing Syria for 21 days could actually accomplish something useful, I’d be much more likely to support it than the utterly useless measures the administration is publicly proposing.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              Do you think the Bosnians are worse off because of 21 days of bombing Bosnia?

              • Dilan Esper says:

                Depends on whether the Bosnians in question were injured or killed in the bombing.

                That’s one of the problems with these campaigns. We justly mock the My Lai commander who said “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”. But that’s exactly how liberal and conservative hawks think about bombings and invasions.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  I notice you didn’t answer the question, so I’m going to ask you again:

                  Do you think Bosnia is worse off because of the bombing campaign?

                  It’s a yes or no question. You can even say no, if that’s what you think.

                  But you won’t, because you have much higher priorities in these arguments than the mere consideration of the well-being of people in little countries.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  I think some Bosnians are better off and others are worse.

                  And the fact that you assume “Bosnia” is some unitary thing that can be “better or worse off” shows how simplistic your thinking is. Simplistic thinking is common among hawks.

                • Manny Kant says:

                  The Wikipedia article on Operation Deliberate Force says that 25-27 Serbian soldiers were killed in the whole operation.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  That same article doesn’t say how many civilians were killed.

                • Manny Kant says:

                  True, but given that the bombing was focused on military targets (unlike the attack on Serbia in 1999), I doubt there were very many. Wikipedia lists about 2,000 civilian deaths for the 1999 operation. Certainly the deaths in 1995 would have been much, much lower, and the absence of a civilian death estimate in the Wikipedia article might even suggest that there weren’t any.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  No, it just suggests that the US and the current Bosnian government have no interest in admitting any.

                  Dropping bombs always kills civilians.

        • Dana Houle says:

          Nope. Bosnia was three weeks.

          I think you’re mixing it up with Kosovo, which was only bombing and wasn’t in the context of a serious ground war. NATO bombing in Bosnia coincided with the Croat offensive in the Krajina and aided the Bosnian forces trying to break the sieges of the Bosnian cities.

          Also, the Bosnian campaign was tactical bombing. Kosovo was mostly strategic, with targets far from the Kosovo conflict, inside Serbia proper.

    • dwreck says:

      Aside from the not-insignificant problems of collateral damage, danger to American pilots, and the cost, one issue is that any bombing campaign of sufficient force to bring Assad to the negotiating table simultaneously gives his opponents every reason to avoid negotiations, because the war will have tipped firmly in their favor. Even if it were to become politically feasible after beginning a bombing campaign for the US could say, “knock it off or we stop bombing” to the rebel groups, the fragmented nature of the rebel forces means that some could continue to fight, even if others observe a cease-fire. After all, what’s the US going to do, un-bomb Assad’s forces and installations? Threaten to aid Assad?

      It’s also completely unclear what sort of negotiated settlement would be suitable to Assad, not to mention the different factions. Even if Assad were willing to give up power, there remain the problems of where he can go (especially after the use of chemical weapons) and what the successor regime would look like. Assad’s supporters have every reason to fear reprisals from rebel groups, so a negotiated settlement could well hinge upon the deployment of peacekeepers. Are Americans and the international community interested in trying to police simmering sectarian violence again so soon after Iraq?

      • joe from Lowell says:

        After all, what’s the US going to do, un-bomb Assad’s forces and installations? Threaten to aid Assad?

        The FSA, including the forces whose gains near Damascus caused the regime forces to launch the chemical assault, are dependent upon American support. The regime had the momentum up until a few weeks ago, and it was the American-backed fighters from Jordan who turned the tide. The US has quite a bit of pull with them, and they can be threatened with an aid cutoff at any time.

      • Ronan says:

        I largely agree with you, Im not really saying they *should* do it, just seems like the most coherent plan Ive heard yet

        • dwreck says:

          I realize that it’s easy much easier to criticize possible options than it is to come up with workable solutions, but I have real doubts about the coherence of a larger bombing campaign. As I said, US intervention does not guarantee that both parties, to the extent that we can even talk about two well-defined parties, will come to the negotiating table.

          Besides, what settlement should negotiations produce? I have yet to see a really coherent answer to that question, particularly given that the Obama administration has stated that it is not interested in removing Assad, which would seem to be the endpoint of a wider bombing campaign. But Assad’s hold on power is the conflict point. The rebels want to depose Assad (and, presumably, punish his supporters), while Assad wants to remain in power (and, presumably, punish rebels and their supporters). There is not much to bargain over, while the stakes for both sides are very high. I guess negotiations probably wouldn’t hurt anything, but the chances for any sort of success seem vanishingly small. How are the two groups going to come to an agreement over the shape of a postwar regime with sufficient guarantees against reprisals?

      • steve says:

        The US has said there can be no political solution that keeps Assad in power and the various rebel groups have said the same. So the bombing would have to be accompanied by efforts to instigate a coup….convince some members of the regime that their survival depends on sacrificing the Asad family. I imagine Asad recognizes this and is engaged in frantic purges behind the scenes.

        I am not sure how much control “our guys” have over the various groups. What percentage of rebel groups would lay teir arms down and accept a political settlement? What would, for example, an offer of ceasefire by “our guys” be worth? Would this precipitate a clash between rebel factions? For the Assad regime (with our without Assad) to come to the table they’d have to believe that whoever they were negotiating with actually had power on the ground. If the rebels aren’t ready to present a coherent, unified front then it is premature to push Assad to the negotiating table. So I imagine the Obama administraiton is mostly looking to buy time to create a plausible alternative power structure. Anything that causes the collapse of the regime sooner than that or pushes them to negotiate will be a disaster.

        • Kurzleg says:

          The US has said there can be no political solution that keeps Assad in power and the various rebel groups have said the same. So the bombing would have to be accompanied by efforts to instigate a coup…

          Here’s one view that suggests diplomacy aimed at democratic reforms might be possible.

      • Kurzleg says:

        Are Americans and the international community interested in trying to police simmering sectarian violence again so soon after Iraq?

        From what I’ve read, Syria had more or less peaceful relations between the sects. But that changed due to severe drought starting around 2008 that bankrupted farmers and sent them to the cities to find work and food. So you have drought causing food shortages as well as job shortages, which creates sectarian contact and friction where it didn’t exist in the past to such a high degree. Whether these can be remedied at this point by ameliorating the fundamental issues is unlikely now that so much blood has been spilled, so you’re correct to raise this question. Not that anyone else has so far – at least not nationally – but if they did, I think the answer from the electorate would be a resounding “NO!”

        • dwreck says:

          Yes, the social upheavals of drought and internal displacement followed by the atrocities (perceived and real) of a bloody civil exacerbate sectarian conflicts and also seems to increase sectarian identification thereby providing more fuel for the fire. I would love to be proven overly pessimistic and wrong. But much of what I have read does indicate increasing radicalization or at least the increasing presence and strength of radical elements that would somehow need to be neutralized in order to maintain peace. I am open to being convinced otherwise, but I very much suspect that any new political arrangement would need to be policed by international troops. I agree that the resounding American domestic reaction and likely the international reaction to that proposition would be “no!”

  6. Dana Houle says:

    I don’t support attacking Assad’s forces, but I’m slightly more inclined to support it after reading this by John Judis. I bring this up because of this:

    Taking the Obama administration at its word that it intends just to spend a couple days launching missiles at Syria without any realistic expectation of fundamentally altering the balance of power in the civil war…

    From what I picked up from Kerry’s testimony, the administration IS saying they want a negotiated settlement that would prevent the complete dissolution of the Syrian state and would prevent it from being used as a safe haven by Iran/Hezbollah or by Jihadis. This is about more than the Baathists or Asaad’s family, it’s seen by much of his coalition of pretty much everyone in Syria–Alawites, Shia, Kurds, Armenians, Arab and Chaldean Christians–who’s not a Sunni Arab as a desperate attempt to prevent being controlled by fundamentalist Sunnis. If–IF–missiles and possibly manned air strikes block Assad’s path to victory, then, the thinking may be, it’s more likely there would be a coup and a possible truce and eventually maybe something resembling centralized state control again.

    In some ways a collapse of government power in Pakistan is scarier, since they have nukes. But considering how much easier it is to move and to use chemical weapons and the means to deliver them, a collapse of the Syrian government is still pretty unsettling. It may be that despite some of what they say, the administration actually has a rationale that’s sound and a plan that could work. But that doesn’t mean they’re clearly articulating, or even admitting to, those goals.

    • Anonymous says:

      Negotiated settlement? Dream on!

    • From what I picked up from Kerry’s testimony, …

      Is that the same testimony where Kerry claimed Tom Friedman was almost always right?

    • Barry says:

      “From what I picked up from Kerry’s testimony, the administration IS saying they want a negotiated settlement that would prevent the complete dissolution of the Syrian state and would prevent it from being used as a safe haven by Iran/Hezbollah or by Jihadis. This is about more than the Baathists or Asaad’s family, it’s seen by much of his coalition of pretty much everyone in Syria–Alawites, Shia, Kurds, Armenians, Arab and Chaldean Christians–who’s not a Sunni Arab as a desperate attempt to prevent being controlled by fundamentalist Sunnis. If–IF–missiles and possibly manned air strikes block Assad’s path to victory, then, the thinking may be, it’s more likely there would be a coup and a possible truce and eventually maybe something resembling centralized state control again.”

      That’s expecting controlled results from a crude instrument.

      • Dana Houle says:

        And that’s different from almost all military policy how?

        Of course it’s a crude instrument. It would be great if people would recognize that almost all military action, even if done by a drone, is a crude instrument with often unpredictable or uncontrollable consequences. But sometimes–even if not in this instance–it’s the best of bad options.

        • Uncle Kvetch says:

          Of course it’s a crude instrument. It would be great if people would recognize that almost all military action, even if done by a drone, is a crude instrument with often unpredictable or uncontrollable consequences.

          It would be equally great if our government didn’t base its PR campaigns for military action around terms like “surgical strike” and videos of bombs going down chimneys.

          If too many people think that going to war can be done quickly, cleanly, and cheaply, and the only people who will be hurt will be the ones who deserve it, it’s because they’ve been led to believe that by forces that want them to believe it.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            Well, yes, but if we step back from the meta for a moment, there’s actually an item on the table.

            These constant ad hominem comments about the United States don’t actually provide any useful insight about what the best policy option towards the Syrian chemical warfare problem is.

          • Dana Houle says:

            It would be better if:

            A. People recognize and acknowledge that military action isn’t surgical and is a blunt instrument

            B. People recognize and acknowledge that US military actions–in fact, those of most democracies over the last several decades–nevertheless have generally been good at keeping civilian casualties low by historical standards

            C. People recognize and acknowledge that it being a blunt instrument doesn’t categorically discredit the use of military force, and that despite its costs it’s sometimes necessary for self-protection or justifiable on moral and ethical grounds.

            • Bill Murray says:

              so it would be better if everybody agreed with you

            • Ronan says:

              I think your second point is debatable (if we arent stressing the ‘by historical standards’ to an unreasonable extent.
              And a lot !! hinges on that second point

              • Dana Houle says:

                #2 is essential for judging/assessing us. But it’s different if, say, we’re looking at Ethiopia going in to Somalia, or the French in Mali.

                And I do think the “historical standards” part scan be stressed to good use, for understanding of the change in effort to avoid civilian casualties, no matter how insufficient it remains. About 20,000 French civilians were killed in the Normandy invasion and the few weeks after it. It’s not discussed much today because, among other reasons, the French themselves don’t discuss it as an atrocity or a callous and avoidable result of Allied war plans and actions in battle.

                • Ronan says:

                  But democracies have no problem using overwhelming, brutal force when serious interests are at stake (or threats exist) and even when not (Vietnam, Fallujah) If they cant use that force then they just outsource it to proxies (latin america, the surge) so i dont buy the framing fully (there are obvious reasons a democracy might be more reluctant, especially in the last couple of decades, to use such force but i dont know what the evidence says on this – comparativly)
                  In this case specifically I agree its likely they would look to limit casualites (to some extent) but you have to look at second order consequences of an intervention by outside actors (look at Kosovo) which might not be intended, but which do happen. So intent isnt everything. In this case Im not fully buying the fact that US interventions (in cases like this *specifically*) have ‘generally been good at keeping civilian casualties low’ as relevant

            • Ron says:

              Can we all agree that military action in Syria is not necessary for self-protection? That is just silly and a silly argument.

              Moral and ethical? Well we go back to whether or not the people who are encouraging war are believable based upon their past. If you think they are ……….. Well if you think they are I guess I can’t help you there.

            • Dilan Esper says:

              People recognize and acknowledge that US military actions–in fact, those of most democracies over the last several decades–nevertheless have generally been good at keeping civilian casualties low by historical standards

              Cold comfort for the people who are actually injured or killed.

              And really easy to say when it’s never going to be YOUR house, or YOUR family, being bombed.

              Put your money where your mouth is. Support foreign bombing attacks on Dana Houle’s immediate neighborhod for US violations of the Convention Against Torture. Put your own family at risk and then tell us how reassured you are that civilian casualty rates are lower.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                And it’s not going to be your village gassed, but for some reason, you only ever apply this thinking in one direction.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  My village isn’t being gassed by American forces.

                  We aren’t responsible for everything the Syrian army– or EVERY OTHER FUCKING FORCE IN THE WORLD THAT KILLS CIVILIANS– do.

                  But we ARE responsible for what OUR OWN TROOPS do.

                  This very simple point seems to be lost on hawks.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  My village isn’t being gassed by American forces.

                  And there we have it: you don’t care if villages are being gassed.

                  You’d be happy to see a million dead Syrians, as long as none of them were killed by United States action.

                  Well, forgive me, Dilan, but as an actual humanitarian, I do care about the actual well-being of people, not merely who kills them.

                  Decent human beings like myself don’t fail to understand this point; we hold it in contempt.

                  You just admitted to a massive moral shortcoming, and you’re bragging about it.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  …so we can now dispense with the pretense that opposition to this action (at least of Dilan’s variety) is based on the well-being of the Syrian people.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  I strongly believe the UN Security Council should take whatever action it deems appropriate, including humanitarian aid, a resolution condemning Syria, etc.

                  Since when is being willing to murder foreigners the definition of caring? Do I not care about murder because I oppose capital punishment?

                • wengler says:

                  Because you’re either with us or against us.

              • Dana Houle says:

                BTW, I know facts don’t slow down your conclusion jumping, but for others that may have missed the numerous times I’ve clearly stated it, I don’t support taking action against Assad. And my reasoning doesn’t include causing people like Dilan who can’t defend their own points to try to contextualize mine as being compromised for supporting an attack, although I have to admit it can sometimes be fun to watch.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  You are carrying water for the hawks, which makes you part of the problem.

                • Dana Houle says:

                  That’s only a problem for you, because you’re afraid of arguments that don’t fit in to your neat mannichean view of the world, so anyone who points out ambiguities and contradictions must have nefarious motives or is a tool of evil.

                  Most people grow out of that, but some don’t.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  It’s a problem for me, because I don’t want innocent Syrians murdered with my tax dollars and by my country.

            • SIS says:

              B. People recognize and acknowledge that US military actions–in fact, those of most democracies over the last several decades–nevertheless have generally been good at keeping civilian casualties low by historical standards

              Low as compared to what? Indiscriminate area bombing? Yeah, sure. But then if Assad had our kind of weapons he would target the rebels while keeping civilian casualties low as well. The “low” collateral damage is a function of technology. Rich counties just happen to be the ones with those fun weapons.

              C. People recognize and acknowledge that it being a blunt instrument doesn’t categorically discredit the use of military force, and that despite its costs it’s sometimes necessary for self-protection or justifiable on moral and ethical grounds.

              You mean, like using force to put down a dastardly rebellion? You are right, people have to acknowledge the functionality of military force. Other people need to also understand the non-universal nature of what can be justified under moral or ethical grounds.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                But then if Assad had our kind of weapons he would target the rebels while keeping civilian casualties low as well.

                Bwah ha ha ha ha ha.

                SIS is clearly not paying attention to how Assad’s forces are fighting in Syria.

                They’re doing their best to avoid civilian casualties, you betcha.

                • SIS says:

                  Prove me wrong then – lets supply Assad with smart bombs and satellite guided bombs.

                  I never said Assad was trying to avoid civilian casualties with the weapons he has. But hey, I guess when you are mad reading comprehension goes.

                • junker says:

                  What? This quote:

                  But then if Assad had our kind of weapons he would target the rebels while keeping civilian casualties low as well.

                  States that the only reason there are major civilian casualties in Syria is because Assad doesn’t have access to hi-tech weapons that would allows him to do so, which implies that Assad cares about minimizing civilian casualties. JfL’s point is that this seems not to be the case.

              • Dana Houle says:

                I mean only those implications you can cherry pick without acknowledging any others. I’m here to make you feel good.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            Since you don’t seem to think there are any meaningful security considerations in the world other than restraining the bad old United States, maybe you should consider this:

            The American military posture for the past two decades has been based around a world in which there is a credible norm against chemical warfare, and a credible system in place for getting rid of existing stockpiles of chemical weapons.

            If that norm goes away – if we’re living in a more dangerous world in which chemical warfare is back and chemical weapons stockpiles are growing – the American military and political class’s postures are going to change to reflect that. And won’t that be a barrel of laughs?

            “It’s ok if the world becomes a more dangerous place and the chemical warfare norm degrades because AMERICA BAD” is a very, very dumb argument.

    • SIS says:

      I think Juan Cole had a good argument yesterday that US attacks won’t help start up negotiations because they embolden the ‘moderate’ opposition to refuse them. The argument up to now, at least from the administration, is that Assad was so strong that he thought he could win outright and thus won’t negotiate. Thus you have to weaken Assad for him to negotiate. if you buy this line of argument, then the opposite is true as well. if the rebels think they can win outright with enough US support, why negotiate? The whole McCain amendment to the Senate resolution would by this cogent line of argument embolden the favored opposition to think that the US is now clearly on their side not only diplomatically but militarily, so they can’t lose. Why then would the rebels decide to negotiate.

      Even if we dismiss that argument, there is the problem of the inherent lack of cohesion among the rebels. In Dayton you essentially had negotiations between nascent functioning governments with singular military commands and so forth. The rebels in Syria do not have this, and that is ignoring the Islamist militants completely. Also, While NATO bombing in Bosnia helped speed up Dayton, the successful Croat offensive that cleared out the Krajina region probably had a more significant effect, since that did change the balance on the ground far more than NATO’s bombs. There is no similar rebel advance to be had in Syria, and the only ones who seem capable of it anyways are the Islamists.

      The final point is that the West has consistently put preconditions on the outcome of negotiations by stating that Assad can’t possible remain President (shouldn’t such an outcome be the result of negotiations, not a precondition?)and allowing Assad’s allies to fully participate has also been something the West has been resistant about. I don’t see why Saudi Arabia should be at the table but not Iran, and this is a position that the US, UK, and France have all at some point announced. Is the West willing to give that up and actually allow negotiations?

      • steve says:

        Yeah, as I said above…the precondition means Assad will refuse so it depends on someone in his government offing him and his family/friends and suing for peace. But the rebels don’t yet represent a coherent bargaining power with any real contorl over what the various factions are doing on the ground. So negotiation is currently impossible. So I think Obama is really interested in buying time…making sure the rebels don’t lose while the US builds something like a coherent, theoretically US-friendly rebel movement that can eliminate competition (some strikes might land on the Al-Qaeda types)and speak with one voice. Then we’ll find some reason to bomb the regime to the negotiation table. Very risky.

  7. bob mcmanus says:

    Oh, if the professed justification sux this badly, it very likely is not the “real” of complete reason.

    I have read, for instance, that Washington has been told that the relationship with its allies, to some extent Israel but primarily Saudi Arabia, would be seriously damaged by a failure to respond to the “Assad atrocity.” A threat.

    The relationship with Saudi Arabia is influencing the WH decision on aid to Egypt, and aid to rebels in Syria.

    Is our relationship with Saudi Arabia important enough to lob a few cruise missiles into Syria? I think this is a more serious question than chemical weapons. They can shut down the oil, and/or shut down the global economy, and find 12 redshirts with suicidal zeal.

    We haven’t been in charge since 9/11, and possibly long before that. We are mercenaries.

    • Ronan says:

      The Saudis were pretty strongly oppossed to a lot of US policies since 9/11..the US has been in charge, hence the problem

    • bob mcmanus says:

      Secretary of State John Kerry said during a hearing Wednesday in the House of Representatives that counties in the Arab world have offered to foot the entire bill for a U.S. military mission that destroys the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.

      ‘With respect to Arab countries offering to bear costs and to assist, the answer is profoundly yes,’ Kerry said. ‘They have. That offer is on the table.’

  8. joe from Lowell says:

    John Kerry is outraged that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons — or so he believes — but as I’ve noted before, that fact (if true)

    Oh, FFS. I hope the people who so utterly get the question of Assad’s chemical warfare attack wrong are as fully discredited as their Iraq War Pundit analogues deserved to be.

    a rather unimportant norm

    Isn’t it funny how nobody was claiming that the chemical weapons norm was ‘unimportant’ until, oh, last Wednesday?

    • witless chum says:

      Actually, this blog has spent a lot of time arguing that the term WMD was bullshit of the highest order because it collapsed together nukes with much less-scary chem and bio weapons. Which is a position I think is entirely reasonable.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        But now you’re collapsing together “chemical weapons aren’t nuclear weapons” with “chemical weapons are no different from conventional weapons.”

        One needn’t “go nuclear” to note that chemical weapons were identified as a unique threat almost a century ago.

        • wengler says:

          Chemical weapons are not a unique threat. There I said it.

          They are messy weapons that can sometimes kill a lot of people in controlled conditions. Their only uniqueness comes from their perceived threat and international restriction.

        • Manny Kant says:

          Given the destructiveness of “conventional” high explosives, I think the idea that chemical weapons are qualitatively worse in some way than, say, the weapons used in the fire bombing of Dresden is ridiculous.

      • Matthew Stevens says:

        I agree that it’s misleading to conflate nukes and chemical/biological weapons under WMD. It doesn’t mean the specific norm against chemical weapons was a bad one.

        • Anonymous says:

          Conflating chem and bio with nuclear is a big part of the MIC’s domestic propaganda campaign.

          Read Chris Hedge’s “Empire of Illusion”.

          • njorl says:

            I’d leave bio weapons out of the discussion. Some bio weapons are similar in scope to chem weapons, others (which may not exist, but could easily be made) belong in the regime of nuclear weapons. Just as tough cases make bad law, biological weapons make for bad policy discussions.

            • wengler says:

              Bio weapons are one of those things that countries have just because they think other countries have them. I can’t imagine how they’d be useful in any sort of interstate conflict.

      • Royko says:

        I have to agree with joe on this point.

        Obviously, nuclear and chemical weapons shouldn’t be conflated (as they were in the Iraq debacle). They have entirely different implications and require different responses.

        And there are lots of horrible ways of killing people that I wish we had norms against, be it machete or landmine or plain old fashioned bombs.

        But the fact that we don’t have norms for all methods of war that I don’t like isn’t in itself a good reason to abandon the ones we do have, any more than I think the fact that you can kill people with a knives is reason enough to abandon attempts at gun control, or that tactical nuclear weapons should be fair game as long as they don’t kill more people than conventional bombing. Chemical weapons are pretty nasty, nasty enough for the world to have a century-old norm against using them.

        I’m not convinced that military action is the best response here or that we are wise to enforce this norm without a broad coalition, but I can’t agree that the convention against using chemical weapons is unimportant.

        • Dilan Esper says:

          The problem is, as Scott says, the particular norm is unimportant.

          There are ways to MAKE the norm important. But that would require effectively banning US practices that kill equivalent numbers of people to chemical weapons, and allowing everyone else in the world the same right to attack US cities or the cities of US allies that we assert to bomb Damascus over violations.

          But, of course, hawks never support that sort of thing.

          • Dilan Esper says:

            (To be clear, I wouldn’t either. I think a toothless norm is better than allowing open season on violating the sovereignty of other nations without UN Security Council approval.)

          • junker says:

            Well, I agree with you that I would like there to be less death in the world through war. But :

            But that would require effectively banning US practices that kill equivalent numbers of people to chemical weapons.

            I don’t understand what this means.

            Do you think that only the “morally pure” should be allowed to make decisions about others? I hear the claim a lot that the US has no right to judge other countries, but isn’t society predicated on the idea that even the morally imperfect may participate?

            and allowing everyone else in the world the same right to attack US cities or the cities of US allies that we assert to bomb Damascus over violations.

            I’m not sure how you think this should work. Of course, any country may try and attack the US, if they wished to live with the consequences of that decision. There isn’t a magic force field powered by American arrogance that surrounds the country. So how does this work? Does the US need to disarm to the point that it isn’t the strongest military in the world? Are international norms and laws only valid if every nation has an equal ability to attack and damage every other nation?

            You say these things a lot – that it’s not fair that the US has the power to intervene militarily wherever it wants, and that the US claims special status by being unattackable when it can attack anyone else. I’m not sure I disagree with that idea, but what, practically, needs to be done to remedy the situation?

            • Dilan Esper says:

              No. I think that a rule of law that exempts mass killing weapons used by American forces does not, on net, decrease mass killing, because it just tilts the battlefield and makes it easier for the US to commit mass atrocities, which, of course, we routinely do.

              And I think rules of law that are subject to superpower veto in the Security Council is the only plausible legal framework, because otherwise the reality is that the US in fact does violate many international norms and I see no reason why a terrorist act against a US city couldn’t be justified as an enforcement of such a norm.

              We need unilateral actions to be illegal for our own security. We can’t then exempt ourselves from the rule.

    • Aimai says:

      Oh, Joe, give it a rest. This categorical imperative exists only in your own mind and in a set of obviously utterly negotiable international conventions. The entire point of an international community is that it actually negotiates and renegotiates its own norms and what is required to enforce them or when to give enforcement a pass. In other words: the international community and its laws are notional, democratic, shifting, amorphous. They are not some platonic ideal and they are not run by platonic supermen.

      Proportionality, utility, and real world considerations always come into play–should always come into play. I’m categorically opposed to people beating their children but I don’t pull out a gun and shoot someone when I see them do it–and nor do I slap their child in retaliation. And I don’t even think that would be a good response if all my neighbors got together and thought it was a good idea.

      • toberdog says:

        If I may add, the idea of the US violating international norms with a unilateral attack to enforce other international norms seems, well, a bit off-kilter.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          What do you do when the police are with the criminals?

          Syria’s patron Russia holds a Security Council veto, and is going to the mat for the Assad regime.

          So now what?

          • witless chum says:

            Which is part of why we need to do away with security council vetos, frankly.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              We certainly do. Let’s call that Plan A…

              • Dilan Esper says:

                Get rid of security council vetoes, and anyone in the world has the right to bomb Joe from Lowell’s house in response to the US’ repeated violations of the Convention Against Torture.

                You like that world better?

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Yup.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Yes.

                  How many times would you like me to say it.

                  Yes, the world would be a better place overall without UNSC vetoes – and your shallow arguments that we should care about this smaller number of people more than this larger number of people are idiotic and unprincipled.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  It’s funny when people embrace the absurdity in the reductio ad absurdum.

                  But no, Joe, it would not be a better world if anyone could attack the US and kill civilians any time that we violated a UN treaty.

                • junker says:

                  Do you really think that the only thing preventing other countries from attacking the US is the security council veto?

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  2 points:

                  1. If the only thing that protects us from attack is that we are a strong country, then can we get rid of all the bullshit about responsibility to protect and international law and just admit we are an empire and nobody gets to attack us no matter what we do?

                  2. There are plenty of ASYMMETRICAL attacks that could be justified under a rule that says “anyone gets to enforce a security council resolution” too. Whether or not you are concerned by this, I assure you that US POLICYMAKERS don’t want to announce a legal rule that says that anyone can unilaterally enforce the torture convention, for instance.

            • Israel says:

              NNNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!

          • SIS says:

            I don’t know, work with Assad’s patron and the patrons of the rebels to actually get everyone to a negotiation table? That would save more Syrian lives if achieved than any other course of action. The Russians are on record as saying that is what they want. Its easier to shame them with their own words if they prove less than fully committed to a negotiated end of fighting.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              We’ve been trying that for two years. Kerry has gone to Russia to try to get serious negotiations going. The Russians are bullshitting.

              Hope is not a plan.

              • SIS says:

                We have most certainly NOT been working for a negotiated end for two years. If we actually wanted a negotiated end, we wouldn’t have started supporting the rebels with intelligence and turned a blind eye to weapons deliveries for them once it was clear Assad wasn’t going anywhere by rebel acts alone. Feel free to insult the Russians all you want, but at least they say the words. We in the West haven’t even done that, and don’t pretend we have, cause that is you bullshitting.

                And you plan is built on as much ‘hope’ as mine. Yours just includes US directly killing people.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  You just make up whatever you want when it’s convenient, don’t you?

                  If we actually wanted a negotiated end, we wouldn’t have started supporting the rebels with intelligence and turned a blind eye to weapons deliveries for them once it was clear Assad wasn’t going anywhere by rebel acts alone.

                  No, SIS, and here is where some actual knowledge about what is going on, instead of just checking your gut, might be useful: absent the American backing for the FSA, the outcome would not have been “negotiated response.” It would have been “Assad wiping out the rebellion.” That’s why Obama didn’t begin arming the rebels back in 2011, when they were winning, but only began doing so in June 2012, after the Assad regime regained the momentum.

                  You are appalling fact-averse in every discussion relating to this topic. You believe exactly what you want to believe; you consistently end up having the facts thrown in your face; and finding out that your factual assumptions are completely wrong never causes you to alter your opinion in the slightest.

              • SIS says:

                You are appalling fact-averse in every discussion relating to this topic. You believe exactly what you want to believe; you consistently end up having the facts thrown in your face; and finding out that your factual assumptions are completely wrong never causes you to alter your opinion in the slightest.

                Dude, that quote coming from you of all people is hilarious and absurd. Talk about projection: do you need a bigger screen?

                The reason we weren’t giving the rebels weapons in 2011 and most of 2012 is because the US thought it would be unnecessary. We grossly underestimated the resilience of the regime and its allies. But you damn yourself by your own statement: you are essentially saying that same thing. Last time I checked, that only supports my contention that the US was not interested in a negotiated end. That is exactly what I said, So thanks for supporting my claim, even as you claim I am “fact-averse”.

                The Russians didn’t stop talking about a negotiated end when their side supposedly began to win, did they? They were always talking about a negotiated end, from the beginning of the violence to right before this while crisis.

                So again, thanks for the massive projections, but do you have anything to say that actually contradicts my claim?

            • Ed says:

              The Russians are on record as saying that is what they want. Its easier to shame them with their own words if they prove less than fully committed to a negotiated end of fighting.

              And it hasn’t really been attempted in good faith by the Russians(or by us). Outsiders are arming the combatants on both sides. There’s room to deal.

        • Uncle Kvetch says:

          If I may add, the idea of the US violating international norms with a unilateral attack to enforce other international norms seems, well, a bit off-kilter.

          Thank you!

          I’d take the impassioned defenses of enforcement of the norm against chemical weapons more seriously if they were accompanied by equally impassioned calls for enforcement of another norm: one that dictates that military superpowers can’t throw some crappy little country against the wall every couple of years, just to show that they can. Can we all get behind that norm? And if so, what would be the best means of deterring our government the next time the temptation arises? “Pointy-headed academic historians will say mean things about you after you leave office” doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            Oh, ok, because the world is unfair, the return of chemical warfare shouldn’t be stopped.

            Sorry, Xinjiang Province 2037: Uncle Kvetch had a point he wanted to make.

            • steve says:

              Well, would the US bomb the living crap out on China in 2037 to stop a chemical wepaons attack on civillians there (since chemical weapons suck at killing anyone but unprepared civillians and any use of them against another country would likely provoke an actual UN-backed response, we are mostly talking about crimina regimes gassing their own citizens)?

              Because that would cause WW3 so it doesn’t sound credible. And China knows that. Which is why whether we bomb a pathetic country like Syria in 2013 is not going to inform their decision.

              A more credible example would involve another militarily-weak country without a powerful army or a stock of nuclear weapons.

            • Dilan Esper says:

              As I have noted in previous threads, the result of enforcing this “norm” in this way will not be no chemical attacks. It will be that only the US and its allies will use chemical weapons.

            • toberdog says:

              I don’t see how lobbing a bunch of cruise missiles, or whatever, at Syria in the next week or so will have anything to do with Xinjiang 2037, or any other place at any other time in the future. Someone like Assad in the future is going to do what he’s going to do.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Oh, great, so now the almost-century-old norm against chemical weapons exists only in my mind.

        No no, there was never any such thing until I made it up a few days ago.

        Whatever.

        They are not some platonic ideal and they are not run by platonic supermen.

        A point which seems to do away with “Yeah, but the US lacks the moral standing!” argument quite nicely. You’re right, the century-old chemical weapons ban is, like everything else humans create, not a Platonic ideal, and is not enforced in a god-like manner by perfect beings. Somehow, though, these banal observations don’t eliminate the value of any other human rules and institutions that Aimai likes.

        Proportionality, utility, and real world considerations always come into play–should always come into play.

        Then argue them. Don’t give me this bullshit about the chemical weapons norm being nothing.

        • pete says:

          Come on, JfL — when anyone tries to argue proportionality, you say norm; when they question norm you say argue proportionality. That’s really not constructive. Let’s have a debate not a sophomoric argument.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            when anyone tries to argue proportionality, you say norm

            Name on time I’ve done this.

            I would love to have had discussions about proportionality over the past week. I haven’t gotten the chance.

            • pete says:

              I was not quoting, I was summarizing, and I stand by the summary. You have many facts to hand that would be useful for a constructive discussion, but you use them not like building blocks but like grenades. It’s really annoying. This debate, and it is a real and important debate, is not about you. You cannot win or lose it. You can, however, either try to muddy it or help to clarify it. I believe you intend to do the latter, but in practice you do the former.

      • GoDeep says:

        This categorical imperative exists only in your own mind and in a set of obviously utterly negotiable international conventions.

        No, it doesn’t just exist only in Joe’s mind. It exists also in Hilary Clinton’s mind, Samantha Power’s mind, Bill Richardson’s, Susan Rice’s, Nancy Pelosi’s, John Kerry’s, and Barack Obama’s. None of these people are neo-cons & I heard tell that last guy won a Nobel Peace Prize even.

        The entire point of an international community is that it actually negotiates and renegotiates its own norms and what is required to enforce them or when to give enforcement a pass.

        The UN Charter is not some moral document, nor is the UN Sec’y Council some force for good. The Charter is merely a framework for minimizing violence (as opposed, say, to promoting justice) and the Sec’y Council is simply a means to focus balance-of-power politics and to rein in armed conflict. So letting Russia & China dictate policy in Syria is akin to letting drug dealers dictate domestic drug policy: They have an interesting opinion but its not dispositive.

        Multi-lateral action–especially when it requires the acquiescence of Russia & China–is not a moral imperative, its a cost-benefit analysis.

    • toberdog says:

      Joe, is it really that well-established that Assad ordered this attack? Is it so implausible that some of the rebels got their hands on some of the stockpile and launched the attack to draw the US in?

    • brad says:

      Aside from the Reagan/Bush Admins, you mean?

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Even the Reagan administration had to make a show of opposing chemical weapons and blaming the Iranians.

        You shameless transparencies are actually arguing that chemical weapons usage is no big deal.

        • brad says:

          No Joe, death is a big deal, especially to the dying. I’m arguing that killing more people because some were killed in one particular way is hypocritical and not likely to be in any way actually productive.

          Say we destabilize the Assad regime, wouldn’t that actually loosen the controls on his chemical stockpiles, and mean corrupt base commanders could sell them on the black market?

          Certainty like yours in an issue like this is the true danger, WMD scare tactics have a bad recent history.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            I’m arguing that killing more people because some were killed in one particular way is hypocritical and not likely to be in any way actually productive.

            Yes, you are, and it would be nice if you would drop the obviously-bullshit pretense about chemical weapons being no big deal.

            I mean, the second a potentially-useful chemical weapons argument occurs you to, you suddenly turn into Mr. Chemical Weapons Scare, so drop the bullshit already.

            I can’t fucking stand the intellectual dishonesty that’s characterized the anti-war side on this. If you have a legitimate case, you don’t need to bullshit.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Isn’t it funny how nobody was claiming that the chemical weapons norm was ‘unimportant’ until, oh, last Wednesday?

      I’ve been arguing consistently that chemical weapons aren’t meaningfully different from conventional weapons, as you can see at the link.

      • Andrew says:

        So you believe Sarin should be a legal weapon of war, and it would be okay with you if Congress rescinds its ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Yes?

        • Dilan Esper says:

          Well, I don’t believe Sarin is a legal weapon of war, and the UN Security Council has every right to detect and punish violations.

          And if you think that’s toothless, there’s a good reason for it, because it protects us from other countries attacking us over our Torture Convention violations.

          • Andrew says:

            That’s not what Scott is arguing. He’s saying there’s no difference between conventional weapons and Sarin.

            • Dilan Esper says:

              The law is what it is. But a US attack on Syria would be extra-legal under international law, as only the Security Council can lawfully enforce the CWC.

              So if the US does this, it has to be because chemical weapons really are some sort of red line, not just that they are illegal. And Scott is saying, correctly, that there is no basis for a red line other than the CWC (which we are not enforcing).

              • Andrew says:

                Right, so if there is nothing special about Sarin except for the law, then Scott should have no problem with changing the law to make Sarin legal. Hopefully he can jump in here to clarify.

                • SIS says:

                  That does not follow from Scott’s statement. You can also argue that more weapons should be banned than currently are.

                • Andrew says:

                  SIS: Sure, the other consistent position would be that both Sarin *and* conventional weapons should be banned. But that would be quite a different debate, as it would make modern warfare illegal in almost any form. Based on the context, I don’t think that is what Scott is arguing. But I hope Scott will chime in here and explain what he means.

                • Dilan Esper says:

                  How about “certain chemical weapons are illegal, but only the UN Security Council gets to determine issues of enforcement”?

      • joe from Lowell says:

        No, you haven’t. You’ve been arguing that chemical weapons are not the equivalent of nuclear weapons, but that’s not the question.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          Tell you what, Scott: I’ll acknowledge that you’re being honest if you stipulate that sarin gas is no more dangerous that what can assembled from items at Home Depot.

          Go ahead, say that, and then I’ll admit that you’re being perfectly consistent.

  9. Davis says:

    “…a category of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that conflated nuclear weapons with a bunch of other weapons that offered no more killing capacity than weapons you could fashion with materials that could be picked up at any Home Depot.”

    Thanks. This has bothered me for along time. Bush equated chemical and nuclear weapons in the pubic mind and got away with it. Why the hell are they so much worse than bombs or napalm?

    • Anonymous says:

      The true reason they’re “worse” is because non-western nations use them.

    • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

      And in a domestic legal context, the term “weapons of mass destruction” is actually used to describe entirely conventional weapons. Among other things, accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev was charged with using a “weapon of mass destruction.”

      It’s a thoroughly empty term.

  10. Aimai says:

    Using weapons to punish Assad for using the (wrong) weapons is kind of like shooting the hostage in order to punish the kidnapper. At the moment Assad is in charge of an entire country, he’s at war with his own citizenry within his own cities. How do you “degrade” or attack Assad and his military capabilities without damaging the country/infrastructure/citizenry? On a philosophical level Assad’s military itself may be no more a “guilty” actor than other citizens, rebel or not, since everyone is acting out their own status positions within a highly constrained system. I’m not clear on the notion that every Syrian we potentially kill, or the property that belongs to the country as a whole, should pay the price for Assad’s use of gas andymore than we would consider bombing Syria’s dams and waterworks to punish Assad if he had bombed them first himself and created a mass incident of drought and starvation.

    • Captain Haddock says:

      How do you “degrade” or attack Assad and his military capabilities without damaging the country/infrastructure/citizenry?

      In theory, one would target purely military targets. The targets I’ve heard mention of have much to do with Assad’s air power, e.g., runways, radar installations, anti-aircraft weapons. Other viable targets would be command and control facilities, communication facilities, etc.

      In practice, it’s much more complicated, obvs. A bridge can serve dual military-civilian purposes. More problematic is a prolonged period between declaring intent to strike and actually striking. There are reports that Syria is moving potential targets around, which serves not only to degrade up-to-date intelligence but also to place otherwise purely military targets next to civilian populations and infrastructure.

      • GoDeep says:

        Actually the unexpected, counter-intuitive pleasant surprise abt the long length of time between Kerry’s declaration last week and the point at which we actually bomb is that by forcing Assad’s WMD assets underground, we’ve effectively pinned him from using them. Reportedly these aren’t the kind of weapons which you can just pop up and down. So by forcing Assad to hunker down our new threat of force is actually having ground level consequences…I believe this is why Obama is making the argument that he can easily strike in a month as next week. That is, the moment Assad uses those forces we can knock them out–so he better not use them.

    • daveNYC says:

      What, Syria doesn’t have any army or air bases we could lob a cruise-missile-gram at? If all we’re looking to do is extract some symbolic price for the use of chemical weapons, I suspect that there are plenty of targets available.

      • steve says:

        But a purely symbolic strike woulkd not actually deter chemical weapons attacks in the future. And it will kill people. So why do it?

        I don’t actually think this is meant to be purely symbolic, which means it will have to do real damage and that comes with a variety of risks and potential for unintended consequences. Which I think is the point of this argument if you accept that Assad realy did use chemical weapons and that that is only reason why the US wants to intervene.

    • wengler says:

      My problem with a ‘punitive’ strike’, is what happens if Assad strikes back? If one of the destroyers that launches those cruise missiles gets hit by a lucky torpedo or missile and suddenly you have dead Americans on your hands.

      Do you double down? Are we suddenly in an open-ended commitment to destroy the Assad regime and rebuild Syria? Billions of dollars, thousands of lives and no one is going to give a shit about an international norm on the restriction of certain chemical weapons.

  11. joe from Lowell says:

    You jump from “a couple days of bombing” to “invasion for regime change,” without pausing for a moment to note that there is a military force in Syria, fighting for regime change, that an aerial campaign could help.

  12. Matthew Stevens says:

    I see a bit of a contradiction between this:
    Assad’s forces have already killed tens of thousands with good old-fashioned high explosive, which is much more effective than sarin in most cases.

    … and this:
    the lesson that future dictators would take from an attack on Assad would be much likely to be “if you want to use chemical weapons make sure your military is strong enough to make a military response to costly” than “never ever use chemical weapons.”

    If chemical weapons are no more effective than conventional weapons, it shouldn’t take much to dissuade governments from using them. Especially as Drum’s first option — make sure your military is strong enough to deter the United States — is not realistic for most nations.

    Not that I necessarily support military action. If the option is open, I’d say charge Assad and other responsible parties in the ICC. (I’m not a lawyer, so I have no idea if this would work.) In a civil war, I’m sure the regime has at least one eye on the exits so war-crime charges could be a real threat.

    • Aimai says:

      Lets say Assad is dissuaded from using chemical weapons again–so what? He’s killed X number of civilians with them this time. So now he goes back to simply shelling his civilian population with our blessing? The lesson future dictators take from this is “kill everyone you want, anyway you want, except with chemical weapons.”

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Which is exactly the same message that the Chemical Weapons Convention sends.

      • junker says:

        Well, the argument, as articulated in the other thread, is that chemical weapons are uniquely bad. So while not shelling would be a better outcome than shelling, shelling is a better outcome than using chemical weapons. If you’re of the opinion that chemical weapons and conventional weapons are identical, then obviously there isn’t any reason to try and stop their use.

  13. junker says:

    I’m not sure I support military effort here, but a couple of points:

    1. I wonder if the reason we don’t think of chemical weapons as particularly bad anymore is because of the ban on them leading to their infrequent use over the last 100 years or so. A lot of the anti-intervention folks on the blog bring up the idea of napalm being as bad or worse than chemical weapons. I can imagine an alternate universe where chemical weapons remained okay, but napalm was banned. Would the argument flip (i.e., “We don’t need to bother with a napalm ban anymore. Besides, chemical weapons are used and that’s much worse!”)?

    In other words, it’s like saying that we should repeal murder laws because murders don’t happen much anymore, and therefore we don’t need the law. Perhaps the causality here is wrong. There isn’t anyway to test this, of course. I just wonder if the arguments against preserving the taboo have the causality backwards.

    2. You might disagree with the notion that chemical weapons are worse than conventional weapons, but the blog just had a long and interesting thread debating reasons why one might think so. This comment:

    with CHEMICAL WEAPONS! Which is much worse than using bullets or bombs because something something

    Is remarkably flippant and insulting to that discussion. Your implication here is that it’s self-evidently wrong to believe that chemical weapons are uniquely bad, and that there are literally zero arguments that this might be the case. Contrary to some of the commentators, I do believe that the people who oppose chemical weapons are arguing in good faith, and that the people who arguing that side genuinely believe that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible. You may not agree with that point, but your refusal to engage with the argument and caricature it doesn’t speak well to your point of view.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Is remarkably flippant and insulting to that discussion. Your implication here is that it’s self-evidently wrong to believe that chemical weapons are uniquely bad, and that there are literally zero arguments that this might be the case

      I’m not saying it’s self-evidently wrong. I’m saying I haven’t heard any good arguments justifying the distinction between chemical and conventional weapons, and I note that you haven’t offered one either.

      • FlipYrWhig says:

        Is there a good argument justifying the distinction between cannibalism and other kinds of killing? Or grave desecration and other kinds of vandalism? Some things are taboo for reasons other than “good arguments.” That doesn’t answer the whole of your point, but I think it goes some distance towards establishing that your point is unanswerable not because it’s so right but because it begs the question.

      • junker says:

        I’m not sure you understand what “engaging with the argument” means, huh?

        “I don’t like your argument, therefore it’s not good.”

        • junker says:

          Just to sum up everything I’ve heard:

          1. Chemical weapons allow you to depopulate an area without damaging the infrastructure. This has value; a traditional bomb may kill the same number of people, but it also destroys the buildings, roads, etc.

          2. Chemical weapons are inherently impossible to accurately target, unlike traditional weapons. You might choose to lob a bomb at civilians, but you have no control over weather chemical weapons will reach non-combatants.

          3. It’s slightly easier to defend against traditional weapons, in that you can at least try to hide in a basement or shelter, but most people don’t have gas masks.

          4. As has been said in the other thread, it is not the case that killing with traditional weapons is easier or similarly easy than killing with chemical weapons. Bombing requires a prolonged effort and assault; chemical weapons do not.

          This is just a few.

      • Patrick says:

        1. Chemical weapons are uniquely unpredictable in area of effect due to winds/weather, greatly increasing the likelihood of civilian casualties even if you are otherwise observing the laws of war. Bombs/artillery can possibly be used indiscriminately, but chemical weapons can ONLY be used indiscriminately.

        2. Depending on the agent, they can create a persistent threat similar to unmapped landmines or poorly fused cluster bombs. Both things that people are trying to outlaw.

        3. Against a modern military with protective gear chemical weapons will cause few casualties and really just inconvenience the tempo of operations. But civilians will be without protection. So next to useless against legitimate military targets, but causing outsized harm to civilians.

        • steve says:

          Since it is useless against a modern military, unpredictable and ineffective depending on the weather, and is basically only good for killing civillians, I doubt we’ll see these wepaons used in international war. They can and will be used against restive civillians within a country by a desparate/calluous regime.

          The other risk is that the weapons flal into the hands of non-state actors (e.g. AQ) and are used in terrorist attacks. I don’t know how portable each of the types are.

          So I guess the risks are:

          1. Small dictatorships use gas on the citizens of their own countries. So we try to punish countries that do this if possible (i.e. they don’t have nukes, they aren’t our “friends) to deter other countries in the same category. I don’t know how effective this would be given the number of provisos

          2. Try to convince such countries to get rid of/secure their chemical weapons, especially if they are unstable, so that non-state actors don’t seize them.

          One problem in Syria is that punishment of the regime strong enough to carry out objective 1 may create the the feared conitions describe in objective 2.

          • Dana Houle says:

            It’s possible that to a degree #2 is what’s behind the gas attack. I’ve seen speculation that one reason for action is to prod Assad and his leadership cadre to exert tighter control over tactical decisions, the implication being that the decision to use gas didn’t go all the way up the command chain.

        • Dana Houle says:

          Curious about something you wrote; can you explain the distinction of “poorly fused cluster bombs?” Is there some argument about cluster bombs that’s not binary, like “if not banned, then they should at least be changed in this way to prevent X from happening?”

          • Patrick says:

            So the issue with cluster bombs is that they throw hundreds of grenade like bomblets, but only 99% go off (numbers out of a hat for illustration). So you’re left with say three or four live grenades sitting around waiting for some kid to go ‘shiny’ and pick up, and then bad things happen. Some activists want to ban all cluster bombs, the US response is ‘we’ll make sure ours work or disarm themselves 100% of the time’

            • Patrick says:

              Adding, whether that is realistic or not is left as an exercise to the reader.

              Also, same logic goes for landmines. The US military is convinced of the need for them in the Korean DMZ but say ‘ours are carefully mapped and deactivate after time’ so they aren’t equivalent to the third world horror stories and are being used ‘safely’.

    • SIS says:

      1. I wonder if the reason we don’t think of chemical weapons as particularly bad anymore is because of the ban on them leading to their infrequent use over the last 100 years or so. A lot of the anti-intervention folks on the blog bring up the idea of napalm being as bad or worse than chemical weapons. I can imagine an alternate universe where chemical weapons remained okay, but napalm was banned. Would the argument flip (i.e., “We don’t need to bother with a napalm ban anymore. Besides, chemical weapons are used and that’s much worse!”)?

      In other words, it’s like saying that we should repeal murder laws because murders don’t happen much anymore, and therefore we don’t need the law. Perhaps the causality here is wrong. There isn’t anyway to test this, of course. I just wonder if the arguments against preserving the taboo have the causality backwards.

      That analogy is not particularly instructive. A better analogy, with possibly as much emotional baggage attached would be whether murdering a child is worse than a full grown male adult. I think most people would argue that the first act is more heinous, but there is no general logical reason for this to be, and I am sure you could find a logical argument for why the later act is socially worse.

      In the 100 years since the first chemical weapons bans began to be created, conventional weapons have also improved and we have seen the devastation they can bring. And lets not forget that one of the first weapon systems banned for military use internationally were expanding bullets, both hollow points and exploding bullets. Those weapons were banned just as early. So its not like even at the beginning these weapons were seen as far worse than any other forms of non-chemical killing.

      There is also a bit of discontinuity with this norm. The US likely killed thousands of Vietnamese through its indiscriminate use of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. Yes, I know it is a defoliant and not a nerve agent, but last time I checked I wouldn’t spray a bunch of people with chemical weed killers in concentrated amounts and then act as if I did nothing wrong if some died. Regimes use supposedly non-lethal chemical agents all the time, and they can in fact kill. But hey, that is legal, and so is using hollow points for internal policing.

      I say all of this to show that there is clearly a lot of grey when it comes to what methods of violence are okay or not.

      Contrary to some of the commentators, I do believe that the people who oppose chemical weapons are arguing in good faith, and that the people who arguing that side genuinely believe that chemical weapons are uniquely terrible. You may not agree with that point, but your refusal to engage with the argument and caricature it doesn’t speak well to your point of view.

      I do think some people arguing that point are doing so honestly, but being honest with a debate implies also being able to listen to the counterarguments. its not enough to honestly believe something. That is easy. What is hard is being able to listen.

      More importantly though, the whole argument about US action in Syria does in fact go beyond the notion of whether Chemical weapons are ‘teh Evil’ greater than all else. Question of international law, not only about the forms of violence used, the but the legitimacy of using violence, are at stake. And in the end, the greater crisis, the civil war in Syria, continues. Does this policy actually bring us closed to an end of that?

      • Andrew says:

        Well said, both to yourself and the parent. To me, the biggest problem with the entire debate is that it is no longer about what is best for Syria and for the world — instead it has become a contest to find the highest horse to sit on.

        • PG says:

          Hello all,

          I was indeed shocked, not by Lemieux’ conclusion, with which I have come to agree in the past few days, but by the tone of his post.

          The ban on CW is not to be taken lightly, it is part of a limited but real progress made in controlling the way war was waged in the 20th century. Seeing it dismissed with a few words as unimportant (by Stephen Walt, to be fair, but Lemieux approves) strikes me as much worse than flippant -both Walt and Lemieux write some of their sentences as if the entire body of international statutes and conventions dealing with chemical and bacteriological war didn’t exist, as if the reaction to the use of CW was purely irrational. It may be hypocritical, that’s something else -but there is a basis in international law, which a lot of people find important for a lot of reasons, and it would be nice not to forget it.

          The same remark applies when it comes to assessing the impact of an attack on Syria. One of the first, and maybe the first, question, should be: does the U.S. have legal standing under international law to attack Syria? Without UN backing, not forthcoming because of Russia, and with Syria clearly outside the area NATO is supposed to deal with by treaty, the answer seems to be no, according to almost all experts (I wonder why people here do not refer more often to the excellent work done by the OpinioJuris blog on this issue and many others).

          So: no to intervention, not because the use of CW is unimportant (it is), not because it should not bring about outside intervention (it should in my view, though people may disagree), but because at this point there is no international legal cover for such an attack. That’s what a position grounded in the laws of war/international humanitarian law would look like, I propose.

          If anybody has any other legal basis on which to reach a conclusion, I would be glad to hear about it. But I would like a discussion grounded in law, not in “hard-headed realism,” please -that stuff has cost the world a hell of a lot in the past 50 years, and it’s not even half as efficient as its proponents believe.

          PG

      • junker says:

        I say all of this to show that there is clearly a lot of grey when it comes to what methods of violence are okay or not.

        I don’t really disagree with you on this point or your examples. I feel as though a lot of the anti-intervention points here are forgetting this. It feels like a lot of the arguments against intervention start with the premise “Intervention is always bad,” and then work backwards from that to “Therefore, chemical weapons are identical to conventional weapons, and so intervention is unnecessary”

        I do think some people arguing that point are doing so honestly, but being honest with a debate implies also being able to listen to the counterarguments. its not enough to honestly believe something. That is easy. What is hard is being able to listen.

        Certainly! I’m one of those on the fence about this whole thing, and I’ve learned a lot from (some) of the back and forth. It is of course difficult for everyone to change their mind, especially about a heated topic like this.

        More importantly though, the whole argument about US action in Syria does in fact go beyond the notion of whether Chemical weapons are ‘teh Evil’ greater than all else. Question of international law, not only about the forms of violence used, the but the legitimacy of using violence, are at stake. And in the end, the greater crisis, the civil war in Syria, continues. Does this policy actually bring us closed to an end of that?

        Yes, I agree. The most pressing question about chemical weapons is important, but I do feel a lot of the debate is focused on that narrow, present point. If the intervention is approved (or fails) what is the next step after that? I don’t disagree with this.

  14. witless chum says:

    I think the question has to be what good do we think it can do?

    I think the best case is that the administration is lying to placate the despot-lovers with security council vetos and they do expect their strikes to severely weaken Assad’s regime and its position in the civil war. Is there a good chance that aerial bombardment could force them to the negotiating table with the rebels?

    I think the norms against chem weapons arguments are weak, primarily because I think countries that have them are always going to use them in a desperate situation, such as the Assad regime is in. I think the idea that you don’t use them as a part of “normal” warfare is maintained as well by the current international agreements against them than by norms. Outlaw regimes, to one extent or another, have used them and they’re the least susceptible to international norms by their very nature.

    • joe from Lowell says:

      Outlaw regimes, to one extent or another, have used them and they’re the least susceptible to international norms by their very nature.

      How convincing do you find this argument when it’s put forward by the NRA?

      Is gun control worthless, because criminals don’t follow laws?

      • witless chum says:

        Gun control measures are more analogous to international agreements against chemical weapons than attacking a country for using them, so I’m not particularly moved by this.

        Also, do we need more bullshit analogies in this debate, or less?

  15. jim, some guy in iowa says:

    I thought one of the administration’s goals was to avoid getting involved in the civil war. Now we’re told throwing a few missiles at Assad wouldn’t be a bad thing, because there’s people trying to overthrow him? The mission creep has begun already

  16. joe from Lowell says:

    There have been about 100,000 deaths in Syria over the past two years in this war. Let’s say that they’re 50/50 between the rebels and the regime (which is grossly favorable to the regime, which has the air power and heavy artillery, but whatever).

    That works out to 50,000 killed per year, or about 960 per month, month in and month out.

    Over 1400 people died from one morning’s launch of a few chemical weapons.

    How about if we privileged, 21st century Americans don’t dismiss the judgment of the people who survived World War I, and knew a whole lot more than any of us about different ways to die in wartime, just because it isn’t immediately obvious to some of us why they created the taboo?

  17. [...] it that closely. Over the past couple of days, I’ve been doing a bit of catch-up reading, and this post at Lawyers, Guns & Money helpfully summarizes my basic unease with what the Obama [...]

  18. hylen says:

    The rebels are the moral equivalent of the founding fathers. We must go in!

    • Mike D. says:

      The rebels (many of them) have some heinous ideas about how to order the society they want to create after bringing down the government, but as a matter of moral justification for revolution, they are probably in a vastly more justified moral position than the American revolutionaries were.

  19. Arouet says:

    Scott – You and Paul are both almost completely ignoring the underlying reason for the norm against the use of chemical weapons: it is impossible to discriminate between civilians and combatants in their use. Regardless of the world’s failure to enforce this norm in the distant past (See: Iran/Iraq, Iraq/Kurds), this is a norm worth protecting. This is especially true given the consequences of not protecting it in this particular case. The Assad regime (if indeed that is who is launching these attacks) has developed a very cunning strategy: use chemical weapons in small-scale, plausibly deniable attacks, and then ratchet up their use until you find the scale acceptable to the international community. If the United States doesn’t respond now in any way after clearly delineating “red lines,” there is little reason for Assad to believe we will respond in the future if he keeps gradually increasing the scale of the attacks. The problem with this isn’t so much that chemical weapons have already killed a ton of people (they have, but as you point out, not nearly so many as kinetic weapons), but that they could exponentially increase the casualty rates, and primarily the civilian casualty rates. Also, with kinetic weapons, there is at least an incentive to not indiscriminately kill civilians because it’s a waste of munitions, with chemical weapons there isn’t any such direct relationship to munitions use.

    I too think the question of the use of force in Syria is a close case, and you rightly point out that the deterrent value may be questionable, but the consequences of not using force are potentially much worse. In order to be effective, a use of force should be aimed against some (but not all conceivable) targets valuable enough to the Assad regime that it will cause them to hesitate to continue escalating, and it should be accompanied by messaging indicating our willingness to strike additional targets of value if he continues with the use of chemical weapons. Frankly, it would have been much more valuable without the hesitation, and regardless of our decision I think the failure of President Obama to call Congress into emergency session is a serious mistake.

    • Arouet says:

      Also, the point about our allies and signatories to the CWC would be more convincing if:

      a) Europe didn’t have a long and storied record of permitting or even abetting unspeakable humanitarian atrocities (See e.g. Rwanda, the Balkans);
      b) There wasn’t significant evidence that Europe’s primary objections are budgetary or understandable trigger-shyness after Iraq;
      and
      c) Signatories to the CWC only included states who ACTUALLY object to chemical weapons use or the commission of crimes against humanity

    • SIS says:

      Bombs and missiles also can’t discriminate between civilians and soldiers. That is why the lovely euphemism of “collateral damage” was invented to describe all those civilians killed by high explosives aimed at military or political targets that happen to be near where civilians live.

      The US has no right to set red lines. The world does have a norm against Chemical weapons. That is why 96% of UN members states signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and renounced their use and possession. Syria was not one of those nations. but norms do not exist by themselves separate from other norms. The list of countries urging the US to bomb in protection of this norm is a hell of a lot smaller than the list of members of the CWC.

      As for the notion that the consequences of not bombing could be worse – chemical weapons aren’t going to be used if there is no fighting going on. Nothing about this planned strike would indicate that it will end the fighting faster. And without an end to the fighting, the possibility of chemical weapons being used will continue. After all, we aren’t planning to remove the stockpiles, and the idea we can actually degrade the regimes ability to use these weapons is unfeasible, given the past history of air campaigns. So if this war continues, the regime continues to have the ability to gas people again.

      The worse possible outcome is not Assad using chem weapons again to win this war (which he lacks the manpower to do). It is a continuation of this civil war leading to Syria becoming a failed state, the Syrian Army’s arsenal being dispersed among multiple combatants, the spillover of this bringing both Lebanon and Iraq into more open civil conflict, possibly full-out civil war, and the death toll ending up a lot higher. This attack, as sold and advertised seems to make that woeful outcome more likely, not less.

      • PG says:

        Hi,

        see discussion under Paul Campos’ post. Yes, bombs can be used in a way which is disciminating. They are usually no used that way, or not enough, but they can be used that way. It’s the whole rationale behind the international ban on CW AND on bacteriological war.

        Which does not mean the U.S. should go into Syria; there would be a need for international legal cover, and there is none, so upholding the CWConvention enters into conflict with upholding the U.N. Charter at this point. Most experts agree that the second trumps the first (see the discussions on OpinioJuris, by people who actually know what they are writing about).

        I am in sympathy with Arouet’s point of view: the CWC should be upheld. But at this point, it’s impossible to do so through a military attack of the U.S. on Syria, IMHO.

        PG

  20. joe from Lowell says:

    If it wasn’t obvious enough that the sudden adoption of “Chemical weapons are no big thang” is an unprincipled grasping at straws in order to justify a policy position, the utter inability and disinterest in any of the people pushing this line to argue for it, instead of just asserting it and then treating it as a given, really drives the point home.

    You think a 90-year-old norm against chemical weapons usage is unimportant? And, while you never wrote anything about that before, never wrote anything that could even be construed as suggesting it, it’s really a principled belief?

    OK, and you came to this principled belief only after the fascist dictator gassed some people, when it just happened to be useful in pushing back against a punishment/deterrence mission against him that you oppose, but for legitimate, principled reasons, and not just because it’s momentarily convenient?

    It’s going to be pretty tough for anyone who isn’t already committed to swallowing any anti-war argument to find that convincing, and to agree that the chemical weapons norm we all, once upon a time, thought was a pretty good idea, unless you provide some sort of explanation of why your thinking has changed – and it had better be something stronger than “Dead is dead” or some snarky capitalization.

    • brad says:

      90 years ago some portion of us would have been in favor of eugenics, as well.
      The world changes, and gas is no longer alone in its capacities to kill everything over a wide area, and that’s including perfectly “conventional” weapons like thermobaric bombs or naplam or the MOAB. You can keep harping about how the wind makes gas scary, but terrorism and international military law are two different things, Yoovian legal arguments aside. Scary doesn’t mean effective or genuinely good cause to involve ourselves in a quagmire where neither side has shown they deserve our support.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        Wouldn’t that ben argument in favor of restrictions on those things, as opposed to an argument for letting the existing restriction lapse?

        “The world has gotten more dangerous, so let’s make it even more dangerous still.” That is an appallingly bad argument – so bad that that it is impossible to believe you’d make it in good faith.

        Scary doesn’t mean effective or genuinely good cause to involve ourselves in a quagmire where neither side has shown they deserve our support.

        Thank you for backing up my point about this entire line of argument being an unprincipled grasping at straws. You can’t argue this point without using your policy preference on Syria even if you try.

        • brad says:

          Your policy preference being to assume the people fighting against Assad are people we want taking over Syria, and then having control of his weapons stockpiles?

          If you think you can get a ban on weapons the US will use to happen, then good luck with that.

          • joe from Lowell says:

            Your policy preference being to assume the people fighting against Assad are people we want taking over Syria, and then having control of his weapons stockpiles?

            That isn’t a policy preference.

            Jesus, you can’t even tell the difference. You don’t even know the difference between a principle and something useful in an argument.

            • brad says:

              Gee, I thought policy was about creating outcomes, silly me.

              And calm down, Joe. You’re sputtering.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Yeah, I’m pissed off.

                I make a point of arguing honestly, and bullshitters like you piss me off.

                Sue me.

                If you can’t argue your case without bullshitting, maybe it’s because your case sucks.

                • brad says:

                  I’m making my case based on an internally coherent argument which I’ve been consistent about the whole time. I’ve challenged you on definitions, the value and meaning of this particular norm, and the fact that your own argument about the need to police and prevent use of chemical weapons isn’t necessarily consistent with the outcomes of the actions you advocate.
                  If that makes you mad, then look to yourself.

                • MDrew says:

                  I’ve challenged you on… the value and meaning of this particular norm

                  At least we’re clear on that. The development of worse weapons means we ought to positively lessen the value we place in norms we managed, due to whatever contingencies of history, to develop against certain other weapons.

                  If we’d managed to ban handguns nationally in the early 20th c. but for whatever reason were never able to ban fully automatic rifles nor armor-piecing ammunition, obviously the thing to do would be to conclude the handgun ban was less valuable than it was before those weapons were developed.

    • witless chum says:

      It’s a false dichotomy you’re creating, Joe. Norms against chemical weapons are good, but I’m not clear that the U.S. attacking Assad’s regime more-or-less by ourselves will reinforce that in any meaningful way. The problem I’m seeing is that you can’t have a successful international norm if only one nation, even if it’s a powerful one, will enforce the norm. If no other countries cares about chemical weapons enough to do anything about it, we can’t make them care.

      To the extent that I have principled beliefs about anything, a pretty good principle is that I don’t want to blow up a bunch of people without at least a good understanding of what the aims are and the feeling that we have a good chance of successfully achieving those aims.

      I’m not neccesarily evn opposed to intervening in an ongoing Syrian civil war (and I think the ongoing civil war part makes it quite fucking different from certain random invasions of Iraq) to limit the number of people killed, I just want a plan for how we’re going to accomplish that before I’d support it.

      • joe from Lowell says:

        What you’re arguing here isn’t what I’m talking about.

        You aren’t dismissing the chemical weapons norm.

        Scott is, all of a sudden. Stephen Walt is, all of a sudden. Half the regulars on this blog are, all of a sudden.

        I’m not addressing my comment to you, or to people who make the argument you make here.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Scott is, all of a sudden.

          I’ve pointed you to links in which I’ve argued that there’s no meaningful distinction between chemical and conventional weapons well before Syria was an issue. Can you point to some links where I argue that the norm of banning on chemical weapons is of critical importance? And when you can’t come up with the latter, can you please stop lying about my position?

          • joe from Lowell says:

            No, you haven’t. You’ve pointed to links in which you argue that chemical weapons are different from nuclear weapons, which, while true, is not the same thing as arguing that they are the equivalent of conventional weapons.

            You are lying about your own position, as anyone who can read the link can tell.

            And since I’m merely restating the accepted, uncontroversial position of the last century of thought, why would I have written any more about that point (prior to this ginned-up pretense of not accepting it) than about gravity existing?

            I will not stop calling you on this, because I’ve got you dead to rights.

            • elm says:

              Here is a quote from Scott’s old post that he linked to:

              “WMD is an umbrella term that conflates the genuinely unique threat of nuclear weapons with many more chemical and biological weapons that don’t have any more destructive capacity than weapons that can be assembled with materials you can purchase at any Home Depot.”

              This is very similar to the argument he is making in today’s post. So similar, in fact, that one could accuse Scott of plagiarizing himself.

              I don’t actually agree with Scott that chemical weapons are no worse than conventional, but he’s been consistent on that point and I’m pretty sure you owe him an apology.

              • joe from Lowell says:

                Unless I misread that passage, Scott was talking about the stocks Saddam was accused of possessing. While it may have been accurate to describe the chemical and biological weapons Saddam was accused of possessing as not having “any more destructive capacity than weapons that can be assembled with materials you can purchase at any Home Depot,” I hope Scott wasn’t making a blanket statement about, say, sarin, not being any more dangerous that a combination of chorine and ammonia.

                Because that would be a problem quite a bit worse than merely grasping at a convenient argument.

                • elm says:

                  Again, the quote is that the term WMD conflates nuclear with biological and chemical, the latter of which Scott considers no more dangerous than conventional weaponry (AKA stuff you could make from Home Depot).

                  Whether or not he’s right about that doesn’t matter: he has said before that he does not consider chemical weapons to be worse than conventional weapons.

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  It was in the context of discussing Saddam’s alleged chem/bio programs, and it’s a much more valid statement if read in that light, and Scott is not actually a particularly ignorant person…but maybe.

                  Like I said, I invite to clarify whether or not he was actually asserting that sarin is no more dangerous that things you can buy at Home Depot.

                • elm says:

                  And to follow-up, right before the quoted section, Scott links to a scholarly piece that criticizes the entire concept of WMD, not just in the context of the Iraq War, and includes the following quote: “The third category of non-nuclear WMD, chemical weapons, have destructive power more readily comparable to conventional weapons.”

                  Scott was clearly arguing, and linking to other arguments, that chemical weapons in general are no worse than conventional weapons in general. Your accusation of him lying about his own work is absolutely incorrect.

                • elm says:

                  You can move the goalposts all you want, Joe. In the comment I was responding to, you said the following: “You’ve pointed to links in which you argue that chemical weapons are different from nuclear weapons, which, while true, is not the same thing as arguing that they are the equivalent of conventional weapons.”

                  That is clearly wrong, as he said in the linked post that he considers chemical weapons to be the equivalent of conventional weapons. It’s right there in the text.

                  You then said, “You are lying about your own position, as anyone who can read the link can tell.”

                  I read the link. It is clearly making the claim that Scott says it is making. For the record, I agree with you on the substance (chemical weapons are worse than conventional but nowhere near as bad as nuclear), but Scott is not lying about his record.

            • joe from Lowell says:

              And let’s also note that the norm in question here is about chemical weapons usage – not mere possession, but usage – a topic that isn’t mentioned at all in Scott’s piece.

    • SIS says:

      The norm against using chemical weapons is not more important than the whole set of international norms meant to limit the use of violence. The greater evil in Syria is not the use of chemical weapons – it is the civil war. Chemical weapon use stems from it, not the other war around. The most important thing to do then is end the war as fast as possible, for as long as it continues, chemical weapons could be used again.

      What the administration is proposing and you supporting does not seem to bring this greater aim any closer at all. And the way in which the admin. seeks to try to defend this supposedly sacred norm, against the use of chemical weapons, inherently undermines other international norms against the use of violence. What norm are more important? Those against using violence for one’s aims, or those that seek to limit the acceptable forms of violence once violence is used?

      Chemical weapons are not magic. In 1995 terrorist used Sarin on three Japanese subway lines. They injured thousands but killed eight people. In 2005 terrorist used bombs on three trains and a bus in London. They injured hundreds and killed 52. Was the Japanese attack worse than the London one? Was it more beyond the pale? Had Assad unleashed a full fledged relentless bombardment of that neighborhood with artillery and killed the same over a night (quite feasible), would you argue against intervention? The reason some of us question the supposed greater evil of chemical weapons is because, in the end, dead is dead. Chemical weapons make certain forms of violence deadlier, but again, the cardinal sin is the use of violence to begin with. Does this intervention actually make the future use of chemical weapons less likely?

      The plan, as enunciated does not actually remove chemical weapons from the country, and the notion that we can with a short and sharp attack deny the government the means to deliver them stands in sharp contrast to the evidence of past air campaigns. All the Assad regime need to deliver these weapons are artillery – heck, even mortars will do depending on the munition used. No past air campaign EVER, including the 78 day campaign in Kosovo, has shown itself capable of destroying mobile and small military assets that can be hidden or mingled with civilian infrastructure. The Serb ground forces marched out of Kosovo in good order and relative undamaged.

      And as long as fighting continues and chemical weapons arsenals remain in the country, the possibility of their spread continues. What if the future use is by regime allied but not controlled forces? Or by rebels against regime allies, the regime, or other rebels? Whom will we bomb then to defend this supposedly critical norm?

      • Patrick says:

        Because sometimes you have to take what you can get. We’re not going to outlaw war. Hell, we outlawed genocide but Rwanda still happened. But should we throw up our hands and say the norm against genocide isn’t worth enforcing because it could still happen?

        I’m not in favor of a strike, because I’m concerned John McCain et al will turn it into a reason for regime change. But that doesn’t mean that the norm against chemical weapons use isn’t important. It takes one type of weapon that is only really useful against civilians off the table. Does that make for world peace or keep evil people from slaughtering civilians? No, but it’s better than nothing.

        • SIS says:

          Because sometimes you have to take what you can get.

          You state that as if the administration plan were the only possible game in town. It most certainly is not.

          Hell, we outlawed genocide but Rwanda still happened. But should we throw up our hands and say the norm against genocide isn’t worth enforcing because it could still happen?

          So who enforces the norm against invading a neighboring country without international approval and not in self-defense? I guess the rest of the world should throw up its hands and not every try to stop us from going around breaking that crucial international norm because we are so rich and strong.

          But that doesn’t mean that the norm against chemical weapons use isn’t important. It takes one type of weapon that is only really useful against civilians off the table. Does that make for world peace or keep evil people from slaughtering civilians? No, but it’s better than nothing.

          Rape if a hideous and evil crime. I wouldn’t advocate the vigilante murder of a rapist though. And I certainly don’t buy the canard that Chemical weapons are only of useful against civilians. The historical evidence certainly does not support that. Before gassing rebelling Kurdish civilians Saddam gassed thousands of Iranian troops, and he did it effectively. Soldiers around the world don;t walk around carrying full anti-chemical gear every day, not even in combat. You seem to forget most soldiers of the world don’t happen to fight for rich countries like ours.

          Finally, the most critical thing we could be doing to save civilians in Syria is working to end the fighting. A cease-fire would save far more Syrian lives than whatever the Administration is planning.

      • sibusisodan says:

        Thanks – that’s helpful in clarifying things. It’s not only a question of the norm against them weapons, but also the norm against non self-defense military engagement. I have no idea how to balance these, but both must be considered.

        • PG says:

          +1

          And @sibusisodan: according to most people writing on this, the U.N. Charter trumps the CW Convention. Which does not mean the CWC is unimportant, nor that nothing should be done to uphold it (how about starting proceedings against Assad in the ICC?) (but then the U.S. would have to accept the ICC…)

          PG

  21. brad says:

    As much as I feel I’m being unfair after some expressed much more reasoned and nuanced opinions on gas having value as a means, if nothing else, of moving the ball forward on certain types of munitions bans, I also can’t help but feel the main concern from those agitating with moral certainty is personal fear.
    A common plank in the argument for some is that Assad using them here and now means gas weapons are about to be given to terrorists for use on us unless we give those non-state actors reason to pause by bombing the Assad regime with uncertain aims.

    Further, when our bombs miss and kill civilians, and they will, what’s the difference, exactly?

  22. Random says:

    The purpose of a bombing campaign is to keep the two sides fighting each other. It’s a cynical, inhumane policy that hasn’t been presented honestly, but it’s extremely likely that a limited bombing campaign will accomplish exactly what the White House wants.

    • steve says:

      Keep them fighting while we scamble behind the scenes to create some sort of coherent pro-western opposition that we can back and eventualy have represent the rebellion during a negotiation. Yeah, I think that is probably the plan. If it prevents a far more bloody chaotic aftermath emerging after a sudden regime collapse or victory then I suppose it could be justified on humanitarian grounds. But if it is just about making sure “our guys” win then the cost in continued bloodshed is abhorent, especially considering that a miscalculation in the scope of the bombing could very well bring about the “sudden collapse” nightmare scenario.

  23. Murc says:

    Am I crazy in that I don’t want us to intervene in Syria because I literally don’t think we’re competent to?

    Because that’s kind of how I come at this. The chemical weapons thing is almost a sideshow to me; it’s a point I don’t even get to before I consider “Do I think the US is competent to engage in a war in a way that produces productive outcomes?”

    And, well, the answer to that is no. No, I don’t.

    I mean, I still consider myself a liberal internationalist, kind of. I don’t subscribe to the view that a war of liberation in Iraq could never have worked, but rather, to the view that we as a nation were unwilling to do what it would have taken to make it work. If I thought for a second that our foreign policy apparatus and our military could do something in Syria in a way that actually produced a positive outcome, I’d be all for it.

    But I do not.

  24. Johnny Sack says:

    I’m not entirely against intervention here. I do resent, however, that anything we do is going to be on the back of John Q. (American) Taxpayer. If I were Obama, I’d send the UK (et al) a bill.

  25. Ezra says:

    “the lesson that future dictators would take from an attack on Assad would be much likely to be “if you want to use chemical weapons make sure your military is strong enough to make a military response to costly”.”

    Of course, that’s the same lesson every war teaches–that it’s bad to lose. If you go to war, try to be strong enough to win.

  26. Joe says:

    an invasion likely to be a debacle to rival Iraq, particularly since the end result would almost certainly be the replacement of one illberal regime with another only with much more chaos and suffering

    One reason I would oppose force is that it just is unclear what will occur, including such consequences. I would be consistent with my ignorance here of what will occur in some other country with various unclear variables in place.

    I think big picture an important thing is to promote international norms. I think, unlike some, that the ban on chemical weapons is notable here, not just some makeweight phony thing on our part. But, thinking that, when the U.N. AND Britain particularly hasn’t signed on to using force, I don’t think the U.S. particularly has some right here to step in. When did Syria become our protectorate or something? At least Libya was something of a joint European effort. If the force was part of a similar joint effort, it would be more palatable to me.

  27. junker says:

    On a semi-related topic, I’d be interested if someone more knowledgeable on this than me could answer a question about the UN. We know that the intervention is on poor legal footing because of the Russian veto power. Does anyone know if the UNSC veto has stung any one country more than the others? So in this case the US government would be considered in violation of international law if intervention went forward. I’m sure other countries have been similarly beaten by the US using veto power. On the whole, has any one country had it’s actions challenged by the veto, more than the others? I’d be interested to know.

  28. MDrew says:

    So, functionally speaking, world leaders should not issue statements marking off chemical weapons use as internationally unacceptable that imply that such statements will ever be backed up by force. The sanction is referral to ICC, assuming the procedures necessary for that occur are satisfied.

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