Moral vacuums and chemical weapons – 9 December 2012

Chemical weapons are rotten.

Really horrible. Like the most disgusting things you can think of. They even belong to that most rancid of clubs – the WMD club. Urgh. And no-one wants to belong to that club… Well, apart from quite a large number of developed nations.

(don’t ruin the urgh… there were feel-good points to be had from the urgh).. apologies. Urgh.

To think clearly about the possible use of Syrian chemical weapons (and surely policy people should be thinking chem-bio, right?) we need to stop the editorialising about just how urgh they are. Saying chemical weapons are horrid is no more compelling a statement than to say that teenagers are stroppy, academics are not natural socialisers and that large French people carrying cars are not terribly reliable. We need to think in a moral vacuum, rather than to get caught up in the sort of statements that constitute motherhood and apple pie. We did, afterall, make this mistake with another leader in the middle east called Saddam, based on the notion that we rightly considered that he went hunting in Berkshire.

 

So, allow me to very temporarily occupy a moral vacuum (don’t panic, I’ll square it with the vicar next Sunday).

If I was a middle eastern tyrant with a civil war that wasn’t going my way, and a chemical arsenal at the end of a series of phonecalls, I’d probably be thinking this:

* The use of any socially unacceptable weapon is to cause a shift in the pattern of the fighting. Gas in WW1 was used to try and revive some mobility to the frontline (to make the cavalry useful again), to ruin the morale of the enemy (afterall, if they’re scared of gas they might decide to run away) and if used properly to kill more of them without having to leave the comfy concrete confines / muddy, rat infested confines (delete as applicable) of the trench to do so. The same is true now. Will it transform the battle space? Will it scare them (ie convince some to defect, dissuade others from joining, persuade supportive communities to change their minds)? Will it kill lots of them in a way not achievable at the moment? I don’t think it’s for me to fill in those blanks, even sat in my temporary moral vacuum.

* Furthermore, the use of socially unacceptable weapons is also dependent on the tricky judgement call of whether the person firing them is going to win. And that’s not really known before the command is given: it’s why the command might be given. So, you might – in the role of tyrannical leader – decide that you’ve seen Gaddafi sodomised with a rifle and then killed in a not terribly pleasant manner, and that even if you fire your nastiness upon the enemy it might a) not alter that outcome or b) you won’t get hanged for war crimes because the international criminal court is all a bit against capital punishment. The penalties for firing don’t appear to be much different to the penalties for not firing, bar some bad press in the history books.

* But but but, the international condemnation will be un-be-lie-va-ble. There will be strongly worded statements in the UN. IN THE UN, no less. I don’t mean to be rude about the UN or any other international organisation, but if you have a government who have been put in the pariah box for, what, 30-odd years at least (probably the whole of the 40 years), I’m not sure that a very notional telling off from the UN is really going to cut any mustard (gas or otherwise). Yes, there are two major state actors commonly seen to be propping up the Syrian government, and yes, the use of chemical weapons might well cause those countries to consider that this is nuisance has moved too high up the nuisance meter to be ignored. But a canny actor in that part of the world, with cross-cutting ethnic tensions that run regionally (rather than nationally) might decide that in all the, er, create tension that could be caused from a few well judged mischiefs that survivability was still possible.

 

My point is this: within the moral vacuum some truly unpalatable acts might look palatable. From within and outside the vacuum we could observe that the comparison with Iraq holds very little water: in terms of military capabilities, connectivity with the west and friends elsewhere, established patterns of regimes being overturned, of the number of imprisonments and deaths of previous regime leaders etc etc.

Outside, however, we can use the lesson of the vacuum to say one very clear thing: western policy makers are going to need to think radically beyond the hackneyed lines of ‘persuading the Russian and Chinese governments to do more’, or the thinking around Iraq, or sanctions, or strongly worded letters to The Times to prevent this kind of escalation. If I wasn’t so in love with the whole democracy thing, I’d ask why we didn’t just focus more on regional stability and leave considerations of western style human rights and democracy as awkward details for someone else to think about. Afterall, when I wrote that the Egyptians were about to drink a cup of sick in 2010, it was a different cup I was thinking of, but this one doesn’t contain orange juice either. The ‘democratic’ revolutions in the Middle East (broadly defined) are going to generate precisely no better a situation for western policy makers than those regimes that went before. Bastards-we-understood, have been replaced by bastards-we-don’t-have-a-clue-about and that doesn’t strike me as particularly sensible (and no, I can’t work out which side of the vacuum jar that comment comes from). Current Syria has never really been on our side, a new Syria is almost guaranteed not to be. We need to think in old-school terms about containment and stability, and less about the schadenfreude of giving someone a kick who we have thought of as a pain.

The instant retorts – if they come – will be about atrocities and human rights. These retorts are entirely correct. As a human being, I entirely agree and all the human stories are horrendous and tragedies in their own rights. They cannot be underplayed. It doesn’t appear that statesmen always have this human view.. and thus we should try and understand this as a means by which to dealing with it.

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