August 31st, 2013 / 3:43 pm


Two easy-to-read, well-intentioned things: one and two.

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  1. Quincy Rhoads

      Thanks, Elias. These are really helpful and informative articles.

  2. Adam Robinson

      Yeah, nice primers.

  3. A D Jameson

      While I appreciate the links to these articles, I don’t understand the argument Max Fisher is making in the first link (at the Washington Post). He claims there that the US’s current desire to fire cruise missiles at Syria is rooted in the international understanding that no nation should ever use chemical weapons:

      So both sides of any conflict, not to mention civilians everywhere, are better off if neither of them uses chemical weapons. But that requires believing that your opponent will never use them, no matter what. And the only way to do that, short of removing them from the planet entirely, is for everyone to just agree in advance to never use them and to really mean it. That becomes much harder if the norm is weakened because someone like Assad got away with it. It becomes a bit easier if everyone believes using chemical weapons will cost you a few inbound U.S. cruise missiles.

      That’s why the Obama administration apparently wants to fire cruise missiles at Syria, even though it won’t end the suffering, end the war or even really hurt Assad that much.

      Left unaddressed here is the fact that 1) the US apparently didn’t feel any need to fire cruise missiles at Saddam Hussein back in the 1980s, when he used chemical weapons on civilians, and 2) the US also didn’t feel any need to fire cruise missiles at itself back in the 1960s, when it used chemical weapons on the Vietnamese (the defoliant Agent Orange).

      Whence this new norm, then, that if you use chemical weapons the US must then fire cruise missiles at you?

  4. elias tezapsidis

      hey. i think you do get the point he is making, bc you restated it. the thing is, the government that is in place now wasn t in place in the era of your point(s), so your theoretical point is kinda irrelevant?

  5. A D Jameson

      Let me restate what I was trying to say. Fisher makes it sound as though if the US doesn’t respond to Assad now, then that will establish some new precedent. But that simply isn’t true, because others have already used chemical weapons on civilians without any response. (The US even defended the use of chemical weapons in both of the instances I cited.)

      I don’t think anyone should use chemical weapons on anyone, and I think that there should indeed be repercussions if nations use them. But I don’t buy Fisher’s argument that we need to hit Syria with cruise missiles now or else we will have established some new precedent.

      the thing is, the government that is in place now wasn t in place in the era of your point(s), so your theoretical point is kinda irrelevant?

      I don’t see how that has any relevancy to the argument I’m making. Again, all I’m saying is that Fisher’s argument is mistaken in this regard. There already exists a precedent for nations using chemical weapons on civilians without any retaliation or punishment. Pretending otherwise is not a valid argument for launching cruise missiles at anyone.

  6. Jeremy Hopkins

      [I copied this from myself, from yesterday. I post them here to see if other people feel like the two above articles failure to mention the UN as a factor is a gross and/or rhetorical oversight, seeing as how the US’s potential unilateral action could only be made “necessary” by inaction on the part of the UN who, “legally” speaking, should be the ones upholding their own conventions, even if it is with US involvement. Also, I still hope to learn if the statements are wrong.]

      Syria never ratified the anti-chem conventions, though they’re a member of the UN.
      The rest of the UN has not voted to intervene in Syria, though they are currently evaluating inspection reports.
      Even if they determine that chems were used by the regime, they’d still be holding Syria to a standard Syria has not itself adopted, at which point it’s a moral issue, not a legal issue.
      Or it’s “You should’ve adopted the standards and so hopefully will everyone else after they see what happens.”
      Are these statements wrong?

  7. deadgod

      Syria is not a signatory to this chemical-weapons treaty: .

      I think your distinction between “moral” and “legal” obtains, in the sense that if the official Syrian government used weapons other countries have agreed not to use, those other countries’ signing the Convention doesn’t have any purchase in the Alawite’s decision (if it was theirs) to use those weapons.

      If marijuana use is perfectly legal here, the fact that it’s not legal there is ineffective on any regulation here, and if anyone from there comes here to stop people from using marijuana here, that wouldn’t be a police action–it’d be an invasion.

      Any retaliation against the Alawite regime would be for something they’d been warned not to do, and (perhaps) for something intrinsically immoral–or more immoral than, say, pistols or Cruise missiles–, but it wouldn’t be a penalty in a legal framework. It would be a more purely coercive disciplining, as it were, and a less consensual one.

  8. deadgod

      Wait: the precedent that threatens wouldn’t be there’s never been acceptable chemical-weapons’ use, but now there has been. Rather, it’s a consensus grew up in the wake of Vietnam, the Iraq-Iran war, and others, to the effect that chemical-weapons use by “official” states isn’t to be tolerated, but that’s all over now.

      Precedence, exception, exception-that-proves-rule, exception-that-evolves-into-new-rule, and so on all change in relation to changes in concrete conditions and changes in thinking about them and about what should happen in reaction to those changes.

      The worry is that if the Alawite regime used chemical weapons and there’s no international retaliation, a consensus–and treaty–that’s largely obtained globally since, say, the late ’80s will now have disintegrated.

      Whether there should be external retaliation, who should–who ‘deserves’ to–perpetrate it, what it should consist of: the argument that there would be a new “precedent” is that all those (excellent) questions follow on the precedent-setting decay of a 25-year global consensus.

      Likewise with a “norm”: the power of a norm doesn’t exclude exceptions–a norm is unlike a natural law in this way. The argument for punishing the Alawite regime for using chemical weapons doesn’t rest on there not having been such a use since the early ’90s, or since the mid-’20s, for that matter. The argument would be that, for example, the US grievously and with humiliating hypocrisy violated norms (and treaties?) with dioxin and napalm in Vietnam, and by turning a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranians and Kurds, but that these ‘crimes’ didn’t demolish an effectual norm and don’t–or shouldn’t–militate against imposing retaliation on the Alawite regime for violating that norm (which (I think) no one has violated against that regime).

      I have mixed, undecided, and probably only hazily informed feelings about Tomahawk missiles, drones, no-fly zones, geopolitical interests and concessions to Realität, and all that.

      But the arguments that ‘because a rule was broken before, there’s no such rule now’ and that ‘an exception means there had been no effective norm’ seem to me not to hold water.

  9. A D Jameson

      The worry is that if the Alawite regime used chemical weapons and
      there’s no international retaliation, a consensus–and treaty–that’s
      largely obtained globally since, say, the late ’80s will now have

      If that’s the argument, then fine, I guess. But how is that Fisher’s argument? He makes it sound as though the norm has existed since 1925. Also, you use the term “international retaliation,” and that’s not what the US firing cruise missiles at Syria is.

      Why does the US the enforcer of this norm? Especially given the US’s own track record regarding chemical weapons?

      And why must the enforcement consist of firing cruise missiles? I just don’t follow the logic.

      Consider the following short play:

      A: My neighbor is beating his wife.
      B: That’s terrible!
      A: I agree. So I’m going to fire a shotgun at the apartment building.
      B: But what if you hit innocent people?
      A: Well, I can’t do nothing, can I? My neighbor might get the wrong impression!

      I’m not saying that nothing should be done. Instead I’m saying that
      1.) Nations have used chemical weapons since 1925 without facing retaliation.
      2.) The US ranks among those nations.
      3.) Why then does Syria’s dictator using chemical weapons today mean the US is forced—forced!—to fire cruise missiles at Syria? (That’s essentially Fisher’s depiction of the situation.)
      4.) BONUS: Fisher also acknowledges that firing the cruise missiles will probably not accomplish anything; the value is instead symbolic—the continuance of the norm. Is that meant to be a joke?

      Why doesn’t, say, Sweden fire the cruise missiles?

  10. yuyu


  11. deadgod

      Good questions. I was just trying to clarify what the “precedent” would be (and that norms can have exceptions and still be in effect). Let me try to answer (or agree with their leading direction).

      Not using chemical weapons has been the “norm” since 1919 — all the wars and other military actions since then in which they haven’t been used–not even by wicked and mighty America–indicates the ‘abnormality’ of the ones where they have been used.

      As far as the international character of a cruise-missile attack (if that’s what happens), the French say they’re in with the US (so far), right? Not sure which other countries are now in agreement with the US, or (more to the point) which ones will be by the time any such action is taken. Of course, technically, a two-country situation–a border, say–is “international”. But I get the point: without the UN or a real coalition or some such imprimatur, firing missiles wildly would be a neo-con cowboy-with-no-cattle move.

      I would emphasize that with two million Syrian refugees (mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, as I’ve seen reported), the Syrian civil crisis is and has for some time been an international one.

      I don’t know what “cruise missiles” are supposed tactically to accomplish. Incinerate stockpiles? Destroy communications and/or launching systems? Kill Syrian field leaders who have fired and would again fire chemical weapons? What’s a cruise-missile blast radius — I mean, how grotesque is the euphemism ‘surgical strike’ in this case?

      I do know that Tomahawk cruise-missile attacks are widely credited with having stopped the three-year war in Bosnia (and bombardment of Sarajevo). Maybe, on that account, they’re believed by fake military geniuses to have magical properties?

      Let me emphasize again: the fact that an agent of ‘justice’ is impure–has been unjust in the past–does not mean that that agent either has no ethical ground to stand on or responsibility to do some ‘right’ thing. Self-awareness of hypocrisy doesn’t remove moral calculation for the hypocrite–just the opposite.

      The US might have the power to stop a terrible abuse of power in Syria–in my view, that was and remains a legitimizing logic for Clinton’s actions in Bosnia in ’95 and Kosovo in ’99. Does the US have that power now? And what, if any, military action would accomplish such a goal? I don’t know for sure! But, to go to your dramatic analogy, shooting through a door at the wife beater–which might kill the wife–might actually be a more effective choice for the wife than watching her get beat to death.

      Not an enviable choice… but that seems to be Obama’s–and our–dilemma today.

      Sweden doesn’t have the military power that the US has–nor the responsibility for actively choosing the alternative of standing by and watching. Swedes did have the power to march for peace before, during, and after Srbrenica. Thanks, friends!

  12. A D Jameson

      Let me emphasize again: the fact that an agent of ‘justice’ is impure–has been unjust in the past–does not mean that that agent either has no ethical ground to stand on or responsibility to do some ‘right’ thing. Self-awareness of hypocrisy doesn’t remove moral calculation for the hypocrite–just the opposite.

      I absolutely agree with you. I’m not at all saying that nothing should be done, or that the US shouldn’t respond in some fashion. I’m just trying to cast some doubt on a very particular argument that I see being made all over the place, including the Max Fisher article—which I know is intended to be helpful, but which still subscribes to a certain ideology:

      1.) Since 1925/1928/1968/1992 (pick your date), the use of chemical weapons has been outlawed.
      2.) Any use of them must meet with retaliation or DRASTIC CONSEQUENCES WILL OCCUR.
      3.) Said retaliation must be a military strike by the US.

      The problems with that argument are as follows:
      1.) The US kept using Agent Orange in Vietnam and its surrounds through 1971, and to this day refuses to take full responsibility for that. (It has done some things to mitigate the damage suffered by US veterans.)
      2.) The US turned a blind eye when Saddam Hussein gassed the Iranians & Kurds in 1988.

      (Admittedly, if one goes with the 1992 date for the norm, then the US has a better track record on this issue—though it would be better if the US acknowledged its war crimes in Vietnam/Laos/Cambodia/Thailand, and what’s more the Afghan War and the Iraq War might cast some doubt on the US’s ability to spearhead attacks on other nations.)

      I agree that al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons should meet with consequences. But I just don’t get why the US (and France) now have to be the ones to retaliate, and why said retaliation has to be accomplished via cruise missiles. Or, and this was my main point, why the failure to respond right away with violence will forever change the rules of the chemical weapons game OMG!

      There’s also the problem that it’s still uncertain whether the rebels themselves have been using chemical weapons. (I know that this is a heavily debated point, and might be the product of Syrian propaganda, but the situation is not clear.) Additionally, the rebels aren’t some Star Wars-style band of fearless Rebels, but consist of dozens of independent actors, including various groups that the US has branded terrorists and is fighting in other countries.

      The situation in Syria, in other words, is a total fucking mess that no one understands, which might cause us to pause before firing cruise missiles at targets therein. Not that I can claim to know all that much about the situation, of course.

      I’m just generally opposed to the line of thought that equates “doing something” with “firing missiles,” which seems to have become the US’s preferred solution to international crises since at least the Gulf War.

      I also doubt that anything I write here will have any effect on anything that happens in the world. Which is why I usually stick more to reviewing movies.

  13. A D Jameson


      America used various chemical agents including white phosphorus in Vietnam (where it was known as “Willie Pete”) and in Fallujah (Iraq) in 2005. We encouraged or at least did not object to the use of chemical agents, although we later blamed him for so doing, by Saddam Husain. Just revealed documents show that the Reagan administration knewof the Iraqi use in the Iraq-Iran war of the same poison gas (Sarin) aswas used a few days ago in Syria and Tabun (also a nerve gas). According to the US military attaché working with the Iraqi army at the time, the US government either turned a blind eye or approved its use (see the summary of the documents in Shane Harris and Matthew Aid, “Exclusive: CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013) We were horrified when Saddam Husain used poison gas against the Kurdish villagers of Halabja in 1988 (killing perhaps 4-5 thousand people) but by that time we had dropped our support for the Iraqi government. Finally, Israel is believed to have used poison gas in Lebanon and certainly used white phosphorus in Gaza in 2008.

      I cite this history not to justify the use of gas – I agree with Secretary Kerry that use of gas is a “moral obscenity” — but to show that its use is by no means uncommon. It is stockpiled by most states in huge quantities and is constantly being produced in special factories almost everywhere despite having been legally banned since the Geneva Protocol of June 17, 1925. —William Polk, cited in The Atlantic

  14. deadgod

      Again, the fact that chemical weapons have recently been used is not an argument that abstaining from their use is not the norm. Either abstention from their use is not the norm, or exceptions to that norm prove, by being exceptional, that it is an effective norm.

      Considering all the international and civil conflicts since, say, January ’93 in which chemical weapons could have but have not been used, and all the chemical weapons that could have but have not been used even by ‘dirty’ fighters, I think their use is still reasonably considered “abnormal”.

      Of course, the fact that the US used white phosphorus in both Fallujah battles exposes the US to the fate of having been neutralized by hypocrisy as a policing agent–or even as a voice–against chemical-weapon users. (This is true even from the (fair) point of view that these American actors were not those American actors; one can’t just discard national continuity when it’s inconvenient.)

      Still, depending on how much power an agent has (like it or not), being a previous perpetrator doesn’t disqualify that agent from acting ethically subsequently.

      And, most materially, willful inaction in any particular case counts as action; if an agent could have done some particular thing, and doesn’t, that agent is responsible for (a reasonable estimation of) the difference between not doing that thing and having had the ability to have done it.

      None of these considerations is an argument for American use in Syria of cruise missiles, drones, assassinations, sending in Tom Cruise and Matt Damon, etc.

      Why the US? Simply to have power is already to be using it.

      (Foucault copied that message-in-a-fortune-cookie from Nietzsche. Or from Hamlet. Whatever’s whatever.)

      I think the best way to think about the US military’s options in this case is to compare most-likely scenarios–and worst-case scenarios–if the US does or doesn’t do this thing and that thing and the other thing.

      ‘If the US doesn’t, is the most likely–and is the worst–outcome worse or better than if the US does?’ ‘Are the “rebels” that the US generally considers worse than the Alawite regime likely to benefit more than any other opponent of that regime?’ Etc.

      Pretty sure that if you respond to this comment, the maxim embedded in your reply will, as an effect of your will, become a universal law.


  15. A D Jameson

      Dear deadgod, I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying here, at least in principle. My argument, such as it is (or was), is not with you, but with the way Max Fisher phrased things in his no doubt well-intentioned article. In which he made no mention of numerous instances in which nations have used chemical weapons without retaliation, throughout the 20th Century and beyond, and therefore makes it sound as though no one has ever used them without reprisal—and that therefore Obama MUST do something NOW. And that oh-so-dire conclusion, when expressed in that fashion, simply isn’t true, and I was trying to question Fisher’s motivation for omitting relevant information. And that’s really all I was trying to say. I also cede that it doesn’t really matter, because Obama will do whatever he wants to do, and we’ll all live with the consequences. (Except for the Syrians who die, who will, I guess, dead with the consequences.)

      I will readily admit that I’m a very cynical person when it comes to politics; the evidence of my lifetime indicates that governments behave more according to principles of realpolitik than they do some higher morality. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t (IMO), and as such attempts to disguise realpolitik as a higher morality tend to distress me.

      The world would be a better place if people accorded to the ethical considerations you afford them.

  16. deadgod

      Sure, it’s relevant in the argument that the US is too compromised–it would be too hypocritical for the US legitimately to contradict its own actions in this way–for its legitimacy in taking action against chemical weapons to hold water.

      I don’t agree with this argument; if the US doesn’t act when it could have and the result of that inaction is worse than some particular action’s result would have been, the US is that much more responsible for the ill effects of its new-found scruples.

      Power means being responsible for the consequences of abstention.

      As to the claim of “by no means uncommon”: this is unhelpful hyperbole. A handful of chemical-weapons uses–of a small handful of all the chemical weapons in existence–in the many international and civil wars since the Ronnie manikin was first posed in the Oval Office is evidence that chemical-weapons use is not ‘normal’.

  17. A D Jameson

      Again, my argument isn’t with the US, which I presume will do whatever it wants to do. My argument is with Max Fisher’s analysis. I don’t know how to state this any more clearly than I already have.

      But I’ll try again. What annoyed me about the original article was that it’s formulated as a Very Helpful Guide, and I will even admit that Fisher was trying to be helpful, but by virtue of how much relevant history he omitted, he ended up arguing that Obama has to do something Right Now in response to Syria, or the World is going to Change Forever, in regards to chemical weapons. And I don’t think that’s the case. And I think it’s disingenuous to present the case as such.

      That is all I was trying to say. That’s all.

  18. deadgod

      Well, I just ran through Fisher’s piece again, and I do think he’s more tentative–more balanced – cynical? – about the likely consequences and the expectation of best-case futility–than you give him credit for being. As I read him, he’s making the case that, say, cruise missiles are most likely the best bad option in a situation without good options.

      Kerry’s weird Parrokeeza imitation is more the emphatic monochromatic case-for that (I think) angers each of us — and if ‘action’ turns to shit, he’s going to look horrible.

      By the way, I just read the Teju Cole parody and interview linked-to by Fisher at his article now. Pretty funny. a) The Smittys? idgi. b) Cole pusses out when asked for solutions. Easy hysterically–and falsely–to say the US ‘always bombs brown people’; even easier to account for what he’s for by saying, “It’s all too complicated for me to figure out.” But pretty funny Strangelove riff.

      Despite his conservatism–Wall Street? absolutely the stupidest ‘smart’ people on Earth??–, I really like Obama, and I hope however he tacks into the wind in Syria doesn’t kill more good people than a different decision would have. Probably an even more consequential decision: I hope he doesn’t put Ol’ Lar’ in the Big Chair at the Federal Reserve… and it looks unhappily like he will.

  19. A D Jameson

      I agree that he’s cynical about the consequences. But I fault his analysis of the situation as it stands.

      Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think he’s trying to be conspiratorial, or anything. Rather, I have been seeing this narrative all over the place: “The US must attack Syria right away, or the world will be forever broken, in regards to chemical weapons!” And, if anything, I think Fisher is thoughtlessly replicating that argument. And that narrative is what I take issue with. Because I suspect that narrative is the product of the Pentagon.