Bob Schwartz

Tag: Syria

Syria Videos and the ASPCA

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.

Yellowcake and Red Line: The Colors of Casus Belli

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.

Rosh Hashanah and Syria


Politics and prayer. There will be plenty of both during these Jewish High Holy Days.

Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, begins this evening. Please consider a donation to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to help the more than two million refugees who have so far fled Syria.

Ktivah v’chatima tova. May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.


Chemical Weapons 101

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

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.

Syria and Foreign Incoherence

Red Line
America may not have had a coherent foreign policy since the end of World War II. And the beat goes on.

Incoherence doesn’t mean that there haven’t been successes. It doesn’t mean that other countries have done better in that time. And it doesn’t mean that the era has been an easy one: the world is more complex and diffracted than ever.

Coherence means an open, intelligent discussion about principles, followed by an open, intelligent discussion about taking action or withholding, and about the consequences and aims of the paths we choose or avoid.

Our policy seems to be driven by overwhelming ideology, good intentions and self-interest—none of which are exceptional or indictable, but all of which should be expressed in a much bigger and more sensible and realistic context. We ought to know what we’re about and candidly tell our citizens what we’re about. And when we don’t know what we’re doing—hard as that is to admit—we ought to say so.

Harry Truman was the last President to have a foreign policy named after him, in that case the Truman Doctrine. In 1947 he warned that the U.S. and the free world could not stand for Greece and Turkey falling into Communist hands (though he never used the word Communism):

It is necessary only to glance at a map to realize that the survival and integrity of the Greek nation are of grave importance in a much wider situation. If Greece should fall under the control of an armed minority, the effect upon its neighbor, Turkey, would be immediate and serious. Confusion and disorder might well spread throughout the entire Middle East….

It would be an unspeakable tragedy if these countries, which have struggled so long against overwhelming odds, should lose that victory for which they sacrificed so much. Collapse of free institutions and loss of independence would be disastrous not only for them but for the world. Discouragement and possibly failure would quickly be the lot of neighboring peoples striving to maintain their freedom and independence.

Should we fail to aid Greece and Turkey in this fateful hour, the effect will be far reaching to the West as well as to the East.

March 12, 1947

(A digression: The reason Greece was considered vulnerable to insidious forces in 1947 is that it was broke and falling apart. Presumably, without a Communist threat looming, Greece 2013 is no longer considered as significant.)

That black-and-white view was in some ways a vestige of the black-and-white war we had just finished—and won. But soon after that speech, global gray was the new black-and-white. Empires were crumbling, new nations were being made. In the year of the Truman Doctrine alone, two of the world’s most populous nations changed course: India became independent, Mao won a revolution in China—events representing more than a third of the world population. The following year, the Middle East (and history) came unglued forever with the creation of Israel. We could pretend that all this was part of some simple monolithic history, but that really made no sense.

And yet we proceeded with a dyadic us-versus-them model for decades, mostly inexplicably and unquestioningly. Korea was supposed to stop the Communism; the military result was a bloody stalemate and status quo, the economic result a Chinese hegemon. Vietnam was supposed to stop Communism; we lost the war, and Southeast Asia is a geopolitical hodgepodge. Soviet Communism crumbled, partly because of a changing world and culture, partly because being a Russian non-Communist economic and political oligarch is much more lucrative than being a party apparatchik.

When we were attacked by the Muslim Middle East, our policy was to strike back, just as we had after Pearl Harbor. Never mind that the policy was sixty years old, and that the complexities of the world could not possibly be much affected by those approaches. Sadaam Hussein is dead, and Iraq is descending at some speed into chaos. Afghanistan is or soon will be about where we found it. Osama Bin Laden is dead, but just as with the Taliban, even if Al Qaeda is diminishing, movements with other names are already rising up to take its place.

All that is preface to our incoherence in Syria.

It is easy to see why the chemical weapon “red line” matters and why proving that it has been crossed matters.

The brutality of World War I made us rethink just far we would go and where as a ‘civilized” world we would draw the line. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits their use. The community of nations has, more or less, stood behind this and its successors.

(Another digression: If the world had considered the real possibility of atomic weapons in this period between the wars, would these also have been put in the same prohibited category as chemical and biological weaons?)

The reason for taking such care about making sure the line is actually crossed of course goes back to Iraq. Having cried wolf so recently, the U.S. could not stand having its credibility questioned, internally or externally, on the issue of weapons of mass destruction.

But as the drumbeat for “doing something” gets louder in the wake of the U.S. now being completely confident that chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime, so many questions are not being asked, and if asked, not discussed or answered.

If we are already confident that thousands are killed, tens of thousands injured, hundreds of thousands displaced, and a nation is being destroyed from inside, why was the imperative waiting for this line at all? There is a global political answer, of course, which is that chemical weapons are a bigger and less assailable common ground upon which most or all can agree. That is indeed a pragmatic strategy, but we also have to talk about moral imperatives, no matter which way the discussion goes.

What exactly can and should we do? And if we do act, what do we expect and hope will be the result? And if we do act, what are the potential consequences?

Our leaders can talk about the red line in Syria, but they should stop pretending that this amounts to coherent and deep consideration. The three questions of actions, expectations and consequences should be the topic that consumes us. If we have principles and doctrines, let’s put them on the table and inspect them and see how aspirational and practical they are. If we believe in sovereignty in some cases but not others, let’s make sure that we know what the cases are and why the distinctions matter. If we do or don’t intervene in foreign political matters or insurrections or civil wars, let’s talk about it and how we act or react.

Instead, what we get are red lines and, in the case of Egypt, the sight of the U.S. being unwilling to call a coup a coup, and otherwise being paralyzed in figuring out what to do or say, so that “subtle” back channel goings on can go on.

Subtle goings on or silence can also may mean that you don’t know what to do or say, or that you don’t want the greater citizenry to hear what you are actually thinking. Maybe our leaders really aren’t very good at being statesmen. Maybe that citizenry isn’t up to the task of having discussions about what we believe, what we can accomplish and what we can’t. The only way to know this is to have it out in the open.

We seem to be more comfortable in the black and white and red line world of the Truman Doctrine. That wasn’t even a true picture of the world seventy years ago, and it definitely isn’t today. Can we talk, without slogans, without the fairy tale that the world of 2013 is a place that will resolve to our political and moral satisfaction soon—or ever? Before we make one more mistake, we have to find out.

Mountains or Molehills: How to Unflatten the News

Mt Everest - Justin Bieber
Digital access has made the news world flat. Flat as in if you use a news aggregator, there is some attempt on the site to stack the most important stories within a category, but since all categories have the same dignity, you really wouldn’t know, being from another planet, whether the civil war in Syria is more or less significant than Justin Bieber racing his Maserati through his exclusive California neighborhood (hint: it’s not Bieber).

Just as digital has created this unsortable mess and mass of news, such that Hamlet, who insane or not could tell a hawk from a handsaw/heron, would have trouble telling an important story from an inconsequential one (hint: your uncle killing your father to marry your mother is an important story).

Here is a solution. Since it is very easy to adjust type size digitally, stories that aggregators, editors or writers are willing to admit are not earthshaking might be presented in a smaller font, while those that are vital could use a larger one. This was always a convention of print news, and there is no reason that the capabilities of digital information shouldn’t be used to bring this approach up to date. As in:

Top Stories

Civil war in Syria threatens regional and global stability and peace.

Justin Bieber continues to race his Maserati around his neighborhood, despite complaints from neighbors.