Bob Schwartz

Tag: chemical weapons

Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.

Syria Videos and the ASPCA

ASPCA Ad
Almost everyone knows the Sarah McLachlan television ad for the ASPCA, her haunting song Angel playing as background for heart-tugging scenes of cats and dogs. It is widely reviled and sometimes mocked: some viewers can’t lunge quickly enough for the remote. It is also one of the most successful fundraising ads ever, considered by some a game changer.

This weekend, supporters of a military strike against Syria are using a similar approach. Horrific videos of victims, especially children, in the throes of chemical warfare in Syria are now circulating.

Emotional rather than rational appeals have to be carefully calibrated. There may be a sense that the emotional appeal is a last resort, because your rational argument is weak or failing. Viewers may also feel unduly manipulated, even insulted, by the premise that they are too stupid or uncaring to get the point otherwise. Finally, disgust may take over, nearly making further appreciation of whatever good arguments there are impossible to hear.

The ASPCA ad worked not because people were entirely guiltily coerced into giving. Those who did manage to stay and were not turned off had an aha moment: you know, I thought about it some more, and I get the point. Animals are mistreated and homeless, something I care about, and I can help.

This is where the Syria horror show falls down. Even when those who aren’t disgusted to the point of numbness think about it, they have trouble getting the point because, even if there is or once was a focused point in Syria, it keeps shifting, as do the rationales, as do the discussions of outcomes.

If you give to the ASPCA, there is reasonable certainty that your donation will go to programs reasonably designed to help mistreated and homeless animals. If you give your approval and support to an attack on Syria, what exactly are you getting for that donation?

Extreme emotional appeals are not necessarily illegitimate; in some cases, as with the Holocaust, they are necessary. But care is the keynote, knowing exactly what you are saying in support of what you are showing. Right now, the Syria videos are being shown in the context of a bunch of different explanations. The audience is left not only with uncertainty about where it all leads or should lead, but with a diminished regard for the presenter. These are serious times, and when the presenter is the President of the United States, none of us can afford that.

“Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces”

Syria

This headline— Pentagon Is Ordered to Expand Potential Targets in Syria With a Focus on Forces—is from a New York Times story yesterday. It has not been as widely reported as it should. And it should, because it might make some people more uneasy than they already are.

The story begins:

President Obama has directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria — to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved.

The strikes would be aimed not at the chemical stockpiles themselves — risking a potential catastrophe — but rather the military units that have stored and prepared the chemical weapons and carried the attacks against Syrian rebels, as well as the headquarters overseeing the effort, and the rockets and artillery that have launched the attacks, military officials said Thursday….

Obviously we are not going to blow up stockpiles of chemical weapons, even assuming we know where they are. But this news puts the question in starker relief. If our goal is to both punish Assad and to reduce the possibility of his using chemical weapons again, we are not going to do that by taking them out of his hands. But if not that way, then how? And the answer from this report is that we intend to weaken his ability to make war more generally—because the people and equipment that make chemical warfare possible are the same ones that make the overall bloody war on his people possible. And at that point, intentionally or incidentally, we have generally intervened in the conflict, no matter how limited the basis.

And that, as this news report helps clarify, is what is bothering members of Congress, members of the military and a lot of Americans.

Yellowcake and Red Line: The Colors of Casus Belli

Yellowcake
You may not remember yellowcake. Not the kind you eat. The kind that is uranium, the stuff of nuclear fission, the stuff of weapons of mass destruction, the stuff that was supposed to be in Iraq but was never found there.

Colors seem to be troublesome in talking about reasons for going to war. So maybe President Obama should have picked a different metaphor than red line. Line in the sand comes to mind. Of course, lines in the sand have a different quality. They are harder to see, and are subject to being erased by wind or water, or by a quick brush of the foot.

Maybe better to stay away from colors and lines altogether, and instead do the much harder, painful and less appealing work, leaders and citizens, of talking honestly about our strengths and limitations, the world we have and the one we want to have, and how to practically and ideally get from here to there. That would be a nice grownup change from childish colors and macho ultimata.

Chemical Weapons 101

OPCW
We are in one of those moments that we often reach in modern public discussion: unequal measures of facts, opinions, emotions and agendas, stirred up so that we are no longer sure of what we know, what we feel and what we think. That’s where logic and learning come in, helping us to sort things out.

Unfortunately, developing and exercising logic is going to take more than visiting a website (and if you do want to sharpen your logical skills, please don’t be looking to some of our politicians for that). But if you want to learn more about chemical weapons, and particularly about why we have agreed to abhor them, you can learn the basics in one stop. Visit the site of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)  and you will be way ahead of many know-it-all pontificators:

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which entered into force in 1997. As of today the OPCW has 189 Member States, who are working together to achieve a world free from chemical weapons. They share the collective goal of preventing chemistry from ever again being used for warfare, thereby strengthening international security.

Among the pages of information, along with descriptions of the work currently being done by OPCW in the Syria situation, you will find a Brief History of Chemical Weapons Use:

Although chemicals had been used as tools of war for thousands of years—e.g. poisoned arrows, boiling tar, arsenic smoke and noxious fumes, etc.—modern chemical warfare has its genesis on the battlefields of World War I.

During World War I, chlorine and phosgene gases were released from canisters on the battlefield and dispersed by the wind. These chemicals were manufactured in large quantities by the turn of the century and were deployed as weapons during the protracted period of trench warfare. The first large-scale attack with chlorine gas occurred 22 April 1915 at Ieper in Belgium. The use of several different types of chemical weapons, including mustard gas (yperite), resulted in 90,000 deaths and over one million casualties during the war. Those injured in chemical warfare suffered from the effects for the rest of their lives; thus the events at Ieper during World War I scarred a generation. By the end of World War I, 124,000 tonnes of chemical agent had been expended. The means of delivery for chemical agent evolved over the first half of the twentieth century, increasing these weapons’ already frightening capacity to kill and maim through the development of chemical munitions in the form of artillery shells, mortar projectiles, aerial bombs, spray tanks and landmines.

After witnessing the effects of such weapons in World War I, it appeared that few countries wanted to be the first to introduce even deadlier chemical weapons onto the World War II battlefields. However, preparations were made by many countries to retaliate in kind should chemical weapons be used in warfare. Chemical weapons were deployed on a large scale in almost all theatres in the First and Second World Wars, leaving behind a legacy of old and abandoned chemical weapons, which still presents a problem for many countries.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union both maintained enormous stockpiles of chemical weapons, amounting to tens of thousands of tonnes. The amount of chemical weapons held by these two countries was enough to destroy much of the human and animal life on Earth….

And a Brief Description of Chemical Weapons:

The general and traditional definition of a chemical weapon is a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system, such as a bomb or shell.

The Convention defines chemical weapons much more generally. The term chemical weapon is applied to any toxic chemical or its precursor that can cause death, injury, temporary incapacitation or sensory irritation through its chemical action. Munitions or other delivery devices designed to deliver chemical weapons, whether filled or unfilled, are also considered weapons themselves.

The toxic chemicals that have been used as chemical weapons, or have been developed for use as chemical weapons, can be categorised as choking, blister, blood, or nerve agents. The most well known agents are as follows: choking agents—chlorine and phosgene, blister agents (or vesicants)—mustard and lewisite, blood agents—hydrogen cyanide, nerve agents—sarin, soman, VX….

Above all you will find an overview and details of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Parties to the the OPCW “represent about 98% of the global population and landmass, as well as 98% of the worldwide chemical industry.”

You may have better things to do than learn about chemical weapons and their elimination; our political representatives and leaders don’t. Whether we unilaterally respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, whether that response stops Assad from their further use, whether stopping this particular weapon changes the sociopathic path he is on with respect to his citizens (it likely won’t), whether the response has collateral consequences in the region and world (it likely will), at least we can think and act knowledgeably.

Syria and the Fog of Or Else

Fog
Rhetoric is no substitute for reasoning. Or strategy.

President Obama may soon be undertaking a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons or going to Congress with the case for such a response.

His speculation yesterday that Syrian chemical weapons might end up in an attack on America, therefore implicating our national interest, is far-fetched. But it is a necessary thing to say, given the way that matters have developed.

The U.S. stood by as President Assad brutally attacked his own people so that he could maintain power in Syria. Despite the fact that the U.S. has always tried to steer global events subtly or not so subtly, intervening in the internal strife of sovereign nations is a “red line” that we are reluctant to cross. This doesn’t mean we haven’t crossed it. It just means that if and when we do this, we do our best to make a colorable, principled case for acting under exceptional circumstances.

There are three other reasons why we’ve held back in Syria, now and over the past two years. There is our very shaky track record of Middle East intervention. There is a book-length list of potential consequences of such intervention, starting with a more violent and destabilized Syria and ending with a more violent and destabilized region and world. Finally, we have no express idea of what we want and how we want to accomplish it, without which ill effects are all the more likely if we do choose to act.

Hints of chemical weapons allowed Obama to employ his own red line: no chemical weapons—or else. Because of world history and established international agreement, certain weapons of mass destruction are deemed so out of bounds that action is semi-automatically called for. That is, using chemical weapons trumps sovereignty. The international community might stand by for the internal slaughter of thousands, no matter how inhumane, but it is quasi-obligated to answer when certain civilized conventions come into play. In other words, the chemical weapons would offer a license to act, even if the other inhumanities didn’t

A license to act—if we knew what we could reasonably achieve, if people believe that it is worth losing lives to enforce the ban on chemical weapons, if it is actually about chemical weapons, if acting doesn’t make matters worse, if we knew exactly what we planned to do and how we would deal with all the possible aftermaths. None of which is clear now. None of which is likely to be clear anytime soon.

Welcome to the fog of or else.