Chemical Reactions

As Russia puts forth an incredibly reasonable proposal on what to do with Syria about chemical weapons, it’s time to ask ourselves why, exactly, chemical weapons are a big deal, and whether, even if the motives of the US were completely honest and transparent here, is is a stand worth taking.

Chemical weapons are one of the first categories of weapons to be roundly condemned by the international community. Ultimately, this is a bit of an accident of history – right as internationalism was at its strongest (this was alsso the era of banning war altogether), we had just seen chemical weapons used to horrific effect in the first world war. When the predominant military tactic of the day was to dig a ditch and take cover in it, toxic heavier-than-air gasses were devastatingly effective. So, the world effectively agreed that these weapons were a step more evil than bullets and bombs.

This begs three questions: Is it still the case that chemical weapons are so devastating as to be in a class of their own? How effective has the world been at limiting their use thus far? And finally, is this an enforceable ideal?

The first answer seems to be no. In an age of incredibly destructive missiles and bombs, chemical weapons are not a decisive factor in battle. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, neither of which experienced any qualms about violating every other rule of war, did not make use of chemicals weapons. When incendiary bombs could kills tens of thousands in a single bombing raid, chemicals that attack the respiratory or nervous system are no longer game-changers.

And yet they still are used, particularly in the Middle East. It is well known that Saddam Hussein used them to crush internal uprisings, but Iraq, as a US client state, also used them against Iran (However, Iraq’s mastery of chemical weapons seems not to have affected the outcome of that war). Egypt under Nasser also used chemical weapons in Yemen, again without suffering real consequences. And while the US and Israel have probably never used more typical chemical weapons like Sarin or mustard gas, substances like Agent Orange and White Phosphorus have been used by both countries (and likely many others) in ways considered by many to constitute chemical warfare.

So, if chemical weapons are no longer decisive strategically, and there has (to my knowledge) never been a successful international retaliation against any country for using them, is it possible and desirable to create a precedent where none yet exist? It seems to be that it is neither. For one, thing, the US, Israel, Russia, China, and any other large, militarily powerful nation will continue to maintain weapons stockpiles and will retain the ability to use them with impunity. For another, it is not unthinkable that a middle-order country that the US had no interest in bombing, like Ethiopia or Indonesia (not to suggest that those particular countries are likely to do so) will someday in the future use chemical weapons. Pursuing this policy now will bind us to it in the future, meaning that if in the future China or Russia want to use chemical weapons as an excuse to intervene in another nation, we’ll certainly have no rhetorical leg to stand on if we oppose them.

Chemical weapons are no doubt bad. But if we use them to justify intervention in Syria now, the potential benefits seem limited and the potential harms immense.

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  • I guess I would leave it to an academic to be academic, and thereby miss everything that is really going down. The US is not concerned about CW’s but was looking for a trip wire to allow it to invade and bomb Syria. So they set it up. The question then is why people are unable to se through such a transparent ruse.

    For one, Americans are limited in their sources of information pretty much to US state-controlled media. Secondly, Americans have not been steeped in critical thinking skills via our education system, and so lack basic skill sets to enable them to see through propaganda. So the government pulls off scams like this with frightening ease.

    As Putin said, and it is utterly reasonable, Syria wold be stupid to use CW’s after the US said that it would bomb them if it did. Given that, there’s a good chance that the chemical event was false flag, or even even staged for cameras. So a critical thinker wold then go looking for evidence to prove or disprove the notion that the terrorists themselves staged the event. You have not done this. I know this because the evidence is there, and it is abundant and you are unaware of it.

    “Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, neither of which experienced any qualms about violating every other rule of war, did not make use of chemicals weapons. When incendiary bombs could kills tens of thousands in a single bombing raid, chemicals that attack the respiratory or nervous system are no longer game-changers.”

    I clipped that because of its revealing nature. You’re not aware that the US has no qualms about violating any rule of war, and has used other weaponry including food and sanctions to kill hundreds of thousands., if not millions (half a million kids in Iraq alone in the 90’s). There was an attempt in Vietnam to breach the dams in the north – if successful that would have killed two million. And there is evidence that mustard gas was used in Fallujah in 2004, perhaps even nuclear bombs at that time, again, there is evidence to support it.

    So I suggest you set aside all of the academic and precedent nonsense, and deal in real world imperialism. This is not about chemical weapons, as the US does not care about such matters. It’s about country #6 in the list of 7 set to be brought down after 9/11, itself a false flag event.

    • Mark –

      I’ve seen the evidence you use – it’s as entirely unreliable as anything in the mainstream media. So I’m focusing on those facts that all reasonable people can agree on, and are indisputable.

      The reference to WWII Russia and Germany was in a very specific context. The US has in fact many qualms about breaking various rules of war – that’s why when we do it, we don’t admit it. Germany and Russia both used their barbarity towards one another as a positive point – neither attempted to cover up the crimes they committed against the other, as their ideologies could hardly accommodate any rules of warfare against each other (interestingly the same is not true of warfare between Germany and the UK; atrocities were committed, but generally either ‘justified’ or covered up, as the two countries were not ideologically committed to the other’s destruction.)

      The point is, if the justification for an attack on Syria is sound, we end up arguing about intent, which is impossible to prove. However, if the justification is unsound, then intent is irrelevant. Russia understands this – that’s why they are attempting to remove the justification, even though they certainly don’t believe stated US intentions.

      • The evidence is there and credible. The US, on the other hand, has put up nothing but assurances, demanding to be believed based on inside information they cannot disclose. So when you say you’ve seen the evidence and discount it, your are actually saying that you choose to believe authority figures in the US. Further, since your opinion is not evidence-based but rather authority-based, I think it safe to conclude you’ve not looked at any physical evidence of fraud. If you have, you’ve automatically discounted it based on the source, the standard means by which the US can tell such boldfaced lies and be believed – a simple confidence game.

        Your second paragraph is barely comprehensible.

        Russia is not so difficult to understand – they have “Obama” cornered, a cornered rat is very dangerous, so ever the highly skilled statesmen, the Russians devised a way for “Obama” to back down and retain some dignity. That’s how the game is played.

        • I’m saying, actually, Mark, that the evidence is inconclusive. I have no opinion on whether the chemical attacks happened. I’m saying it is irrelevant – retaliation to chemical weapons use is a bad policy. As there can be nothing like a thorough examination of the scene, it’s absurd to assume one way or the other. (Though I agree it seems unlikely that Assad would use chemical weapons at this juncture).

          I don’t keep up with your evidence, Mark, because it leads you to conclude absurd things, like that post-Gadaffi Libya is more violent than Syria.

          • I realize that you regard the attack on Libya as humane, a contortion of thought processes resulting from the mixture of partisan politics into normal imperialism. If you were to merely detach from partisanship, you’d see a continuation of the same policies as have been in force since (and long before) 9/11.

            “Inconclusive” is a fact of life. You must deal with evidence as opposed to proof, and consistency, preponderance of evidence withhout regard to source, and examination if motivations to fine-tune your judgement. Here you are using lack of absolute certainty as a crutch to allow you to avoid critical thought.

            My “absurd” conclusions have two aspects that should trouble you: support by an abundance of evidence, and disapproval of the emperor.

      • You’re not widely read then. The role of media has been debated for a century now by the likes of Bernays and Lippmann, further analyzed by homsky and Carey and McChesney and Bagdikian. It’s understood that there is no wisdom to be mined in public opinion, so the job of the media is to engineer consent. They appear widely diversified but they are not. What you get from NPR you also get from FOX, tailored for different audiences, same message. If you think that Assad is a ruthless dictator fighting an internal rebellion, you’re bought in. FOX viewers drink the same Kool Aid. You’re not morally or intellectually superior to them.

        Please do not assume that because you do not know what I am talking about, that I don’t.

  • Well, actually, this O’Bama’s Bay of Pigs moment. The CIA and Mossad set him up to look weak, and they succeeded quite nicely. Now, they ReePubes will have another shot at the preziduncy ’cause Obummer looks weak on foreign policy. Works like a charm. As Obummer whizzes backwards, the Pubbies take to the airwaves. It’s all a joke. All a set up.

  • “Regarding Reagan’s attack on Libya: is Mr. McGovern aware of the book BY WAY OF DECEPTION by a Mossad defector and whistleblower which charges that Mossad planted radio transmitters in Tripoli to broadcast the (fake) Libyan military transmissions that the U.S.picked up and used as proof of Libyan guilt in the Berlin disco bombing? Or am I mistaken and the book as been disproved? Sounds like the same thing we have here today: the alleged panicked radio transmissions by the Syrian military were “provided” to the U.S. intelligence community by the Israeli intelligence services.”

    1 ? ?

  • Mark, I think PW is making a reasonable counter-argument that appeals to a broader segment of the populace, and that’s a good thing. I appreciate the brief historical context juxtaposed with the modern US/Israeli use of napalm and white phosphorous.

    I’m glad someone at this site is weighing in. Jon and Max will have very important votes, and it’s been pretty quiet around here.

    • I regard it as a counter-argument that appeals to the broader populace because the broader populace is kept in darkness. I watched the Daily Show and Charlie Rose last night, and got the “liberal” perspective. Yeesh.

      Max and Jon will listen to their constituents for one reason only: the Russian counter strategy has prevailed, and the war has been roadblocked at this time. Otherwise the administration probably has the goods on them and can force their vote at will. Me of high principle and character do not make it to office in a small state like Montana where such offices are so easiy bought.

      Don’t confuse a favorable outcome here (fingers crossed) with democratic governance, which does not exist in this land except when there is mass organization, which does not exist.

      • Mark –

        You take admittedly inconclusive evidence and take it on faith that such evidence supports your side of any argument. That’s not critical thinking, it’s faith.

        What you read above, however, is a pretty decent example of critical thinking if I say so myself. Many things are uncertain – therefore, I assume, for the sake of making a stronger, broader argument, that every uncertainty goes the way of those who DISAGREE with me. Therefore, EVEN IF everything uncertain is in fact as the war supporters claim it is, they STILL do not have a case for war.

        Your method of argumentation is to challenge even those facts that are well established and base your argument on all of those inconclusive factors going your way. That’s what lets you make arguments based on ‘facts’ like the fact that the US is going to invade Libya or nuke Iran. or that Libya must be more violent than Syria.

        We both agree that Syria likely did not use chemical weapons, or at least the regular army did not. The difference is, if Syria did use chemical weapons, or if we can’t’ prove that they didn’t, your argument runs dry, while mine remains quite as relevant as ever. I don’t believe you’re wrong here, but you often are, and when you are, it undermines your argument completely, all because you choose to believe anything you read that agrees with your viewpoint.

        As to the administration – it still seems unlikely that they really wanted this strike in Syria. For one, they didn’t perform the strike immediately after the alleged atrocity. Obama announced that he was sending the decision to the congress (something who certainly didn’t have to do – look at Libya). That added at least a two week delay, plenty of time for Putin to come up with a way for Obama to back out.

        Now, I don’t know how much of this was planned, but to imagine that Obama found out about Putin’s plan in the papers is absurd. And look what the result was – the majority of Republicans who went on the record, went on the record against war. Now, if the administration can back out while saving face, it will have actually accomplished something worthwhile (getting real progress on removing chemical weapons from Syria), and effectively de-fanged those calling for action in Syria by pushing his major opposition into a corner with the rest of the doves. I’m not going to say Obama definitely planned it this way, but it seems likely that someone important in the administration was hoping this would be the result.

        And now look at what

        • “We both agree that Syria likely did not use chemical weapons, or at least the regular army did not.”

          At this point, I think the evidence is inconclusive. I’m waiting for the results of the U.N.’s lab tests, and for our government to release more information on who ordered what.

          Perhaps we’ll know more after Obama’s address tonight.

          In the meantime, I encourage readers to reacquaint themselves with Woodrow Wilson’s 2 April 1917 address to a joint session of Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany.

          • We’ll likely know less after Obama’s address but your expression of faith, while unwise, is duly noted. The Russians have already concluded that the gas originated with the rebels based on the type of shells used and satellite surveillance evidence of origins of projectiles, but that has not been reported on American media.

            And this slips through the cracks: There is nothing in chemical weapons treaties appointing US as arbiter and enforcer. That’s a UN role. Why do people in this country assume that is a proper role for the administration? Who appointed them?

        • Again, no one cares about chemical weapons. You revert back that posture, that the good intentions are always there with these Democrats. You also reflexibly assume that the US executive is in charge even though there is plenty of evidence he’s not. I say evidence: US foreign policy has not changed with a change of party, but Democrats are now a war party, and Republicans are threatening to vote no on a new war. You’ve switched sides! You changed, nothing else has.

          I use the word “evidence” by the way, because in the real world, there is always doubt, deceit, intrigue, agitprop, lack of good information, so that we are left to evaluate for ourselves without regard to confidence games, and only relying on our best judgment.

          I assume “Obama” did not strike when the purported event took place because they wanted to play it straight, and assumed the fake event would be a sale. The objective appears to have been to stage an event that overwhelmed people with initial evidence, interrupted rational thought processes, allowed the bombardment to begin. The two prior attempts to stage an event only brought international laughter. This one was big. (It’s fairly obvious from pictures that the victims are playing for the camera, by the way, and I’ve seen hacked emails from an American officer telling his wife that the kids were just playing for the cameras. Ecidence, no doubt which you automatically disbelieve.

          You play “uncertainty” as a default, but there is very little of it unless you get your information fom American media. We just got Dish Network here and I’ve finally seen what you see – the “Syria gas attack” repeated again and again on the news as if it were a known fact. That is agitprop. Assad is by deault a brutal dictator, agitprop. What’s Obama to do … Giving him the right to aggressive war by default, agitprop. It’s scripted. If you broaden your information base you’ll find that the evidence of fakery is strong to conclusive.

          “We can’t prove that they didn’t” ??? You really wrote that? You shifted the burden of proof to the negative, by default giving the Americans the benefit of the doubt without strong evidence? And you call this critical thinking? you really wrote that? That’s a “gotcha” mistake.

          You apparently know little about what happened in Libya in 2011 or what is going on now. I say that objectively as the news from there has been all over non-American media, including the Syrian death squads (“Al Qaeda”) having been transported fom Libya to Syria. There is evidence to support this, it again, not on American media.

          • ” You’ve switched sides!”

            Every day I teach reading comprehension to teenage kids. We teach them right off the bat that the key to reading comprehension is reading, that when you read, you figure out the main picture. Now I want you to go do that really quickly.

            Now, what would you say is the big picture there? Am I siding with (public) Obama? Or am I siding with the majority of the GOP, Vladimir Putin, and you? It’s of course the second answer. I have laid out quite clearly in two detailed posts why I am opposed to military action in Syria – because even accepting the claims of the US government (which I do not currently accept, as I have also made clear), there is no good outcome from attacking. So, no points for you there, you missed the thesis.

            I also tell students not to read into the text what isn’t there. I don’t watch TV. I don’t own a TV. I don’t read American news – though I do read the BBC, which is quite similar. News the first 48 hours after its reported is as likely false as true, it seems, which is also why I didn’t write about Syria until now. And yet you act as though I am breathlessly and uncritically reporting what I see on TV. Rather, everything I said here is factually true without a doubt, the reasoning is sound, and therefore the conclusion is inescapable: a strike on Syria is poor foreign policy.

            Compare that to your method of argument. It largely comes to the same conclusion as mine, but you build on ‘evidence’ that cannot be verified and has led you astray in multiple documented cases in the past. You refuse to believe that the Syrian people could rise up in a religiously-motivated movement of their own accord, even though they have done it once before, and it has happened already in Palestine and quite nearly in Egypt and other Sunni countries. You refuse to believe that it’s possible that Assad would put down this kind of rebellion in a way that results in thousands of deaths, even though it is an indisputable fact that his father did exactly that a generation ago. And yet you grant absolute credibility to a ‘hacked email’, despite 1) the ease in faking such a thing and 2) the fact that this implies that immense national security secrets are regularly sent, with no real purpose, to civilian (thus, poorly if at all encrypted) email addresses.

            Given that we’ve reached the same conclusion, and my reasoning is infinitely more acceptable to the majority of people and near-absolutely airtight even if all the uncertainties go against it, I can only conclude you continue to rely on your anonymous sources, conspiracy theories, and pitifully unreliable prognostications because it makes you feel a step above people who actually know a thing or two about foreign policy.

            • Many many countries need new and better government, most of them US client states. Why are you so focused on the one that our government wants brought down? Are your thoughts controlled by others? Are you a trained attack dog?

              My words:

              “I use the word “evidence” … because in the real world, there is always doubt, deceit, intrigue, agitprop, lack of good information, so that we are left to evaluate for ourselves without regard to confidence games, and only relying on our best judgment. ”

              We usually do not have the necessary information to pass judgment on current events due to censorship and agitation propaganda. Critical thinkers are automatically suspicious of convenient events, such as a gas attack at a time when the Syrians governmetn was in mop-up mode. They assume such events to be fake until proven true.

              You told me that the gas attack has to be proven false. You’re not a critical thinker. End of story. You revealed your inner thought processes. It’s over.

              You’re not the first teacher to swear he teaches critical thinking skills. Not having such skills yourself, it’s impossible to pass them on to kids.

              Barshar Assad summed this up the difference between “opposition” and “terrorism” quite well in his interview with the confrontational Charlie Rose (he’s allowed that posture with official enemies): I suggest you watch it.

              Could the Syrian people have a better government? Yes. So could we. If that were the issue, you’d have a valid point. The issue is armed aggression against a sovereign state. Remove that aggression, we can talk about positive change for Syria.

              • “The issue is armed aggression against a sovereign state. Remove that aggression, we can talk about positive change for Syria.”

                I’m aware the issue is armed aggression, that’s why I wrote three posts now opposing it. You’re the only one trying to steer the conversation anywhere else!

        • Here’s a story about hacked emails from Voltaire You can go there and follow the leads to judge for yourself the value of the information, if you dare leave American news. Here’s a brief summary:

          (The whole of the article from which I clipped the picture talks about a major troop mobilization in Turkey three days before the event, and how Syrian troops unearthed the weapons. ) The hacked email exchange is between “MShapiro” and Jennifer MacDonald, wife of Col. Anthony J. MacDonald, General Staff Director, Operations and Plans Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence the US Army Staff, reads as follows:

          M.SHAPIRO: I can’t stop thinking about that terrible gas attack in Syria now. Did you see those kids? I was really crying- They were poisoned, they died. When is it over? I see their faces when in sleep. What did Tony say you about this?

          J.MACDONALD: I saw it too and got afraid very much. But Tony comforted me. He said the kids weren’t hurt, it was done for cameras. So you don’t worry, my dear.

          M.SHAPIRO: I’m still thinking about those Syrian kids. Thanks God, they are alive. I hope they got a kind of present or some cash.
          There is a reason why stories such as this, in addition to never being reported here, are automatically disbelieved. if it were true, the implications would completely undermine your belief system.

  • Thank you, PW, for the perspective and history. The conspiracy screeds that follow should subject their notions to the laugh test. Don’t jettison them entirely, but you might ask around and carve out the crazy. We (in the U.S. and elsewhere) are waiting for Superman. Read Thomas Friedman “Syria – Same war, different country.”. We need our participative democracy to work – not for some authoritarian president or dictator to make decisions for us. Ask yourself where you’re seeing this dysfunctional top-down “governance?”. Home? Work? Church? School? No matter where it occurs, it prevents participation. Aside from a few oddballs, most go silent.

    • Friedman? Please. There are many tough journalists out there, none of whom have Friedman’s access to mainstream journals. Thomas speaks so freely because he is docile and predictable. Insight is not his thing. If he were for one moment to be confrontational to power, he’d be relegated to blogging.

      Your notions about participatory democracy are interesting, even if far-fetched. I’ve seen such a system at work in places like Nicaragua and El Salvador, and those who actually work for democracy get their heads bashed by American agents. Here in this country you can go all on about democracy because you have nothing at risk. Occupy Wall Street actually confronted power, and got their heads bashed, their asses thrown in jail. That’s how democracy really works in this country.

      Speak to us some time when you actually have skin in the game rather than merely spouting fancy Friedmanite notions about a world that exists only in civics text books.

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