Tag: weapons of mass destruction

Words of Mass Destruction in the Syria Debate

Note: This is a guest post by Ty Solomon, Lecturer at the University of Glasgow

Even though the war in Syria has been raging for the past two years, much of the global outrage that we now see has only erupted with the recent reports about Bashar al Assad’s government attacking civilians with chemical weapons.   Arguably, the past two long years of war has not provoked the same level of indignation as we are now seeing from world leaders and publics.  Why is it only now, with the use of chemical weapons – and not the use of “conventional” bombs and guns – have the US and UK governments seriously debated intervening?  The conflict has not necessarily taken a turn for the worse with the recent poison gas revelations.  By some accounts 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict before the chemical weapons attack, which itself is reported to have killed about 1,400 people  While indeed horrific, chemical weapons are not necessarily more deadly than “regular” bombs and guns.

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Did You Know that WMD is DMW Spelled Backwards?

Herbert Marcuse had some interesting things to say about certain political acronyms.

 The meaning is fixed, doctored, loaded. Once it has become an official vocable, constantly repeated in general usage, “sanctioned” by the intellectuals, it has lost all cognitive value and serves merely for recognition of an unquestionable fact.

This style is of overwhelming concreteness. The “thing identified with its function” is more real than the thing distinguished from its function and the linguistic expression of this identification (in the functional noun, and in the many forms of syntactical abridgement) creates a basic vocabulary and syntax which stand in the way of differentiation, separation, and distinction. This language, which constantly imposes images, militates against the development and expression of concepts. In its immediacy and directness it impedes conceptual thinking; thus, it impedes thinking.

I bring this up because of Tom Nichols’ thoughtful piece on assessing the Iraq War. His basic point: the persistence of Bush Derangement Syndrome among liberals, academics, and especially liberal academics makes it “too soon” for a sober assessment of the war. I’ll have a few words to say about that at the end of this post, but for now I want to focus on the issue of Iraqi WMD.

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“Get the Big Idea Right”

This morning, the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville hosted CIA Director David H. Petraeus.  The event was not publicized and required a ticket for admission. As chair of the Political Science Department, I was invited to hear the talk — and had a seat very near the front and center of the stage, less than 25 feet from the speakers. Unfortunately, very few students outside of the (approximately 40) McConnell Scholars were invited to the event.

The lecture hall was instead filled with older guests, including many veterans and some active duty servicemen (and women, though I didn’t see many), local elites important to the University and Center, faculty, administrators, etc. I sat between a veteran and a banker with a famous local name. Senator McConnell was on the stage with the scholars, as was his spouse, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, University President James Ramsey, and Center Director Gary Gregg.

Petraeus spoke on the subject of leadership, a central concern for the McConnell Center and its students. Unfortunately, the former four star General gave a half hour talk that began with a very long introduction thanking his various hosts (and a couple of jokes) and ended with many platitudes that were not especially provocative. 

In between that long intro and weak conclusion, the body of the speech addressed 4 main points (Petraeus called them tasks of leadership) and employed primarily examples from the 2007 Iraq surge “success” to illustrate them:

  1. Get the big idea right (in this case, counterinsurgency strategy)
  2. Communicate effectively throughout the organization
  3. Implement the ideas
  4. Capture the lessons: refine and repeat

Petraeus did not take questions at the end.

That last fact was especially disappointing to me since it seemed like Petraeus ignored the elephant in the room. After all, the Iraq war started in March 2003 and the insurgency was a fairly significant problem not long after the successful U.S. capture of Baghdad. Why did it take so many years to “get the big idea right”? More importantly, how was Petraeus able to convince political leaders of the need for his favored strategy in a context that so obviously started by getting the big ideas WRONG?

In some ways, I think the problems I had with this particular speech and event parallel many of the most common criticisms levied against the CIA.

Why was the event secret? Guests were asked not to publicize the event because of security, but the CIA is frequently accused of excessive secrecy in the name of security. The McConnell Center has often hosted serving Secretaries of State, Ambassadors, Senators,and other political dignataries. Most were advertised in advance and the events were milked for PR purposes. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s address was so highly anticipated that people on campus could watch a live-stream of the event. Does a former first lady, President’s spouse, prominent presidential candidate, and serving Secretary of State face lower security threats?

I suspect that the visit of the CIA Director was not advertised because someone feared that left-leaning members of the campus community might organize a distracting protest outside the facility. Even if this is CIA policy, I challenge the rationale behind the policy.

The failure to invite a larger sample of the general student population, the decision to invite dozens of local elites, and the lack of questioning suggests another problem with the CIA. It has a reputation for not being especially accountable to various constituencies.

I’m sure organizers felt as if the event went off well, like an uncontested slam dunk. 

Cyber Nerd Blogging: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security

Antoine Bousquet has a fascinating post at Disorder of Things on developments in neuroscience and how they are being used by militaries to 1) enhance their own soldiers and 2) degrade the abilities of their opponents. The post is in response to a report by The Royal Society on Neuroscience, Conflict and Security which outlines these developments, speculates on the future and the ethical implications of these developments.

As Bousquet notes, it’s some pretty hairy stuff:

Yet perhaps the most potentially consequential developments will be found in the area of neural interfacing and its efforts to bring the human nervous system and computing machines under a single informational architecture. The report’s authors note here the benefits that accrue from this research to the disabled in terms of improvements to the range of physical and social interactions available to them through a variety of neurally controlled prosthetic extensions. While this is indeed the case, there is a particular irony to the fact that the war mutilated (which the Afghan and Iraq conflicts have produced in abundance – according to one estimate, over 180,000 US veterans from these conflicts are on disability benefits) have become one of the main testing grounds for technologies that may in the future do much more than restore lost capabilities. Among one of the most striking suggestions is that:

electrode arrays implanted in the nervous system could provide a connection between the nervous system of an able-bodied individual and a specific hardware or software system. Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware, a neurally interfaced weapons systems could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy. (p.40)

In other words, human brains may be harnessed within fire control systems to perform cognitive tasks before these even become conscious to them. Aside from the huge ethical and legal issues that it would raise, one cannot but observe that under such a scheme the functional distinction between human operator and machine seems to collapse entirely with the evaporation of any pretense of individual volition.

Noting scientific developments aimed at altering the sensory perception of enemies on the battlefield, Bousquet concludes: “The holy grail of military neuroscience is therefore nothing less than the ability to directly hack into and reprogram a target’s perceptions and beliefs, doing away even with the need for kinetic force. So that when neural warfare does truly arrive, we may not even know it.”

A couple of thoughts:

First, The Royal Society Report is interesting for its inclusion of a relatively decent overview of the applicable law that would apply to such weapons. Ken Anderson at Lawfare disagrees – suggesting that “The legal and ethical issues are of course legion and barely explored.” However, considering the report is relatively brief, the legal and ethical section does proportionally take up a large chunk of it. in addition, the report includes no less than four recommendations for suggesting improvements to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention regimes. Interestingly, they do not suggest any improvements for law of war/IHL as opposed to arms control. I find this surprising to a certain extent. While there are principles that always apply to ALL weaponry (distinction, proportionality and necessity – and, of course, prohibition of unnecessary suffering), I would argue that neuro-non-leathal weapons are a definite grey area. (As The Royal Society report notes, altering someone’s sensory perception has radical implications for notions of responsibility in the prosecution of war crimes.)

Second, Bousquet’s last point is interesting in that it reflects the constant quest over the last century and a half to develop weapons that would end the need for the use of kinetic force. I’m presently reading P.D. Smith’s Doomsday Men a social history of the application of science to warfare and weapons of mass destruction which traces the development and logic behind such weapons that were supposed to be so terrible that they could never be used – or if used, would be so terrible as to inspire an end to warfare. This was the case for chemical/gas weapons and eventually the atomic bomb – the thought behind many of their creators that their mere possession would be enough to stop countries from fighting one another full-stop because the consequences would be so terrible.

As Smith demonstrates in his book, such a theory of non-use of weapons was a frequent theme of the science fiction literature of the time, particularly that of HG Wells:

The United States of America entered World War I under the slogan of ‘the war to end all wars’. Never has idealism been so badly used. From Hollis’ Godfrey’s The Man Who Ended War (1908) to H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914), the idea of fighting a final battle to win universal peace had gripped readers in Europe and America. Wells’s novel even introduced the phrase ‘war that will end war’.
Once again, science played a vital role in these stories. A new figure emerged in pre-war fiction – the saviour scientist, a Promethean genius who uses his scientific knowledge to save his country and banish war forever. It is the ultimate victory for Science and Progress…

As James writes, these works of science fiction promoted the idea that “through revolutionary science and the actions of an idealistic scientist, war could be made a thing of the past.” In some works a terrible war is required to win the peace through science, but it is clear that in the view of many of these pre-War “science romance” novels (which would go on to inspire many of the future atomic scientists working on the nuclear bomb) that super weapons could stop war.

Should we then read neuro-weapons in this light – as part of the constant scientific quest to develop weapons which will end the need to fight?

The downsizing of WMD

What does the term “weapon of mass destruction” mean to you? A few years ago, I was part of a team of academics involved in a project examining the implications of the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preventive use of force. The editors of the book we produced, William Keller and Gordon Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh, wanted us to avoid using the phrase “WMD.”

In their introductory chapter, Keller and Mitchell noted that the phrase WMD misleadingly linked together chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons:

This semantic leveling obscures the fact that each class of weapons falling under the “WMD” umbrella varies significantly with regard to potential lethality and destructive power; the feasibility of protection and defenses; and potential missions. When dimensions of threat are blurred in this fashion, inaccuracies are easy to introduce. For example, the rhetorical flexibility afforded by the omnibus category “weapons of mass destruction” enabled Bush administration officials to support claims of an Iraqi “WMD” threat (replete with ominous “mushroom cloud” imagery) by pointing to evidence of possible Iraqi chemical weapons development. Obviously, chemical weapons lack the capacity for nuclear destruction, yet as Wolfgang Panofsky points out, “Linking these three classes of weapons in a single WMD category elevates the status of both biological and chemical weapons.”

Yet, despite this reasonable critique, federal law enforcement officials are even now stretching the term WMD to a point well beyond the breaking point.

I refer specifically to the arrest of the so-called “Hutaree militia” in late March. Time, April 12:

federal authorities charged nine alleged Hutaree members with seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

Did the Michigan Christian Fundamentalist group have chemical or biological weapons — or perhaps nuclear materials to build a “dirty bomb”?

No.

The group planned horrible crimes, but none involved what any reasonable person would consider “weapons of mass destruction,” unless you are the kind of person who would consider even a simple weapon like a machete a WMD:

The group’s alleged plot appears to have required killing a cop at a traffic stop, or after a faked 911 call. Then, the group planned to attack the funeral of that officer — in order to wreak further havoc by killing even more government and law-enforcement officials who would have gathered to mourn.

As Nina Tannenwald has recently argued, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was intentionally created as a category to render entire classes of weapons illegitimate. As such, the phrase has been vital to building taboos against use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Tannenwald’s work on the nuclear taboo demonstrates the value of that taboo (though I have challenged the logic of the biological taboo).

Keller and Mitchell accurately note that the phrase was used in a 1948 UN resolution, but Tannenwald’s research reveals that the term was used by policymakers in 1945 to refer to new terrible, horrible, hideous weapons, which were biological and atomic.

The distance between those origins and the Hutaree charges seems vast. If the gap is obliterated, I worry that the phrase will be rendered meaningless and the taboos against genuine WMD will be weakened.

Incidentally, someone writing at Wikipedia found that the term was used in 1937 by Cosmo Lang, the Archibishop of Canterbury, to describe aerial bombardment in Guernica, Spain. In that instance, the phrase directly followed a description of “the appalling slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery” brought by brutal acts of war.

That too seems different from the current usage — and it obviously didn’t “stick” as World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and other wars involved horrendous conventional bombings that were not described as WMD.

I fully support prosecution of potential domestic terrorists for criminal conspiracies, but I do not believe in inflating these threats by using terms like “weapons of mass destruction.” Does anyone remember how the Bush administration handled a case where a domestic terrorist was actually arrested with chemicals?

New Nuclear Posture

Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Defense presented its latest Nuclear Posture Review Report. I haven’t had a chance to read the entire document yet, but media reports have focused on a new policy declaration that is of great interest to states and scholars alike.

The statement garnering the greatest attention is included in the “Executive Summary” of the NPR (p. viii):

The United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.

To that end, the United States is now prepared to strengthen its long-standing “negative security assurance” by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

Essentially, the U.S. is reversing longstanding nuclear policy by promising merely to employ “devastating conventional military response” against threats it previously used nuclear weapons to deter: potential chemical or biological weapons (CBW) attacks against the U.S. or its allies. The document makes this explicit, noting that even though the U.S. had abandoned its own CBW programs, it “reserved the right to employ nuclear weapons to deter CBW attack on the United States and its allies and partners.”

Among scholars, this development is interesting because it potentially contributes to strengthening a norm (or perhaps tradition or taboo) of non-use of nuclear weapons. As McGill’s T.V. Paul argues in the book that I just linked, the U.S. refusal to preclude the threat of nuclear retaliation against states using CBW had long weakened the tradition — to the dismay of non-nuclear weapons states everywhere. In fact, during the last decade other nuclear-armed states had followed the U.S. lead and weakened prior non-use pledges in the face of CBW threats in the post-9/11 era.

By excluding the threat of nuclear retaliation against CBW attack, the U.S. is now potentially strengthening the tradition (or norm or taboo) and could serve as a role model for other states that emulated its more threatening previous posture.

Non-nuclear weapons states are likely to be pleased by the new U.S. declaratory strategy since many of them have been arguing since the 1960s for these kinds of “negative security assurances.” It was a point of contention even in the original NPT debates.

Before anyone gets too excited about the U.S. announcement, it should be noted that Iran and North Korea are excluded from the U.S. promise. These states, now apparently called “outliers” rather than “rogue states” by the U.S., have now been explicitly warned that they could still suffer a nuclear blow if they used CBW against the U.S. or its allies.

Indeed, even as the NPR reduced the number of nuclear threats the U.S. is making, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also arguably increased them. By isolating and highlighting the “outliers,” the U.S. is essentially trying to leverage a nuclear threat for counterproliferation purposes:

“If there is a message for Iran and North Korea here, it is that if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you,” said the secretary of defense.

Still, Gates called the use of nuclear weapons a “last resort.”

This statement amounts to a renewal of the Bush Doctrine, linking the potential first use of military force — in this case nuclear weapons — to counterproliferation aims. As Phil McCauley and I recently warned, the fears about biological weapons proliferation are sufficiently strong that they render the current taboo against their use illogical by classic arms control standards as they increase the risk of war.

The U.S. needs to couple the new policy with active efforts to strengthen the chemical and biological arms control and disarmament regimes as well. It was the U.S. after all, that blocked the negotiated verification protocol to the Biological Weapons convention just months after the 9/11 attacks.

All conventional wisom is not created equal

Jacob Weisberg reminds us that conventional wisdom is often wrong, and then isolates seven instances of “received wisdom” that might prove wrong.

A lot of our premises have turned out to be wrong lately. I’m talking not about evanescent bits of conventional wisdom that have shifted but about overarching assumptions that were widely shared across the political spectrum—big things that experts and nonexperts agreed about—until they were proved false.

For instance, before 1989, virtually all Sovietologists agreed that the USSR was highly stable. Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Before 2003, everyone from neocon hawks to French lefties agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Before 2008, few economists wondered about the fundamental soundness of the American financial system. Popular opinion echoed the expert consensus on each of these points. Those who challenged the groupthink—such as Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, renegade counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and pessimistic economist Nouriel Roubini—tended to be dismissed as provocateurs, wackos, or (in Ritter’s case) worse.

Some of these examples are pretty darn poor, however.

1. To be blunt, a shitload of people were predicting a major terrorist attack on the United States long before 11 September 2001. I don’t know, of course, about the strange invocation of “Middle East” experts. Maybe Weisberg knows his point wouldn’t withstand scrutiny if it concerned the terrorism scholarly community?

2. Everyone most certainly did not agree that Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” Most observers thought Hussein had some kind of residual biological or chemical weapons program. But the ability to produce mustard gas is not synonymous with having WMD, and a lot of people knew it.

The Bush Administration’s great con was collapsing any kind of nuclear, biological, or chemical program into the dreaded “WMD threat,” and a great many people simply didn’t buy it. Weisberg should know better than to perpetuate this fraud six years after the fact.

The rest of the article is kind of enh in an I-need-to-write-an-article-and-I-don’t-have-any-good-ideas-right-now way. Examples include:

“Look, Freeman Dyson says that climate change might not be so bad. The models are uncertain and increased CO2 might lead to better growing conditions for plants” …. “Central authority in China might collapse!” …. “There’s this crazy theory that fossil fuels don’t come from fossils, and the chemical reaction even happens in laboratories!”

That sort of thing.

But, as an international-relations scholar, I feel compelled to comment on one: “Ken Waltz says nuclear proliferation might be stabilizing!”

Well, yeah.

Indeed, as my colleague, Matt Kroenig, has pointed out (PDF), many of the states that actively oppose nuclear proliferation do so precisely because they worry that Waltz is right about the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons.

Such states would, shockingly enough, rather not be deterred from engaging in force projection and various other forms of compellence.

The next attack today

Yesterday I was watching Colbert and former Sen. Bob Graham was on, discussing the recently released World At Risk, the report of the WMD commission he co-chaired. The headline of the report (which Graham reiterated in the interview) is to expect an attack using a WMD attack within 5 years, most likely a biological attack.

In Zimbabwe, there is a massive Cholera epidemic, over 60,000 are reported to have come down with the disease, and hundreds have already died, with several thousand potential deaths expected.

To discuss: How is what’s happening in Zimbabwe any different from a WMD attack?

If a biological weapon was unleashed–anywhere in the world–it would be a major international incident and significant media event. The recent attacks in Mumbai, with less than 200 total dead, have dominated world news.

Now, one can easily rehearse the attack vs. outbreak story, malicious intent vs. breakdown of ‘normal’ conditions, and so on and so forth.

But, the fact remain, this commission, forecasting something that may or may not happen, is garnering modest attention, while an actual outbreak of a biological killer is occurring in the here and now, the effects of which are not all that different from what a real bio-weapon attack might be, merits about as much, maybe less, depending on what you’re watching.

It is yet another example of what Steve Smith was talking about in his ISA Presidential Address. If you haven’t read (or re-read) Smith’s charge to the profession recently, you probably should.

Actually, the bad news is very good news

I commented on this point more than three years ago, but since President Bush said something dubious again today, it seemed worth repeating. First, here’s what Bush said at his news conference, with the egregious part in red:

Over the past three years I have often addressed the American people to explain developments in Iraq. Some of these developments were encouraging, such as the capture of Saddam Hussein, the elections in which 12 million Iraqis defied the terrorists and voted for a free future, and the demise of the brutal terrorist Zarqawi. Other developments were not encouraging, such as the bombing of the U.N. Headquarters in Baghdad, the fact that we did not find stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and the continued loss of some of America’s finest sons and daughters.

That’s right, the President of the United States thinks that the failure to find WMD in Iraq was bad news.

However, all the best evidence suggest that the failure to find WMD indicates that Saddam Hussein did not possess WMD and did not have significant programs.

This is very good news.

Hussein had no weapons to pass along to terrorists, he had no ability to make a mushroom cloud. He could not threaten the US.

Moreover, the news means that international disarmament efforts, economic sanctions, and weapons inspection can succeed.

That is all very good news and the President still doesn’t understand. Let’s hope someone learns the lesson before similar mistakes are made in regard to Iran.

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