Tag: chemical weapons

NSA Reform or Foreign Policy Signaling? Maritime Provisions in Title VIII of the USA Freedom Act

With much attention being given to the passage of the 2015 USA Freedom Act, there is some odd silence about what the bill actually contains. Pundits from every corner identify the demise of section 215 of the Patriot Act (the section that permits the government to acquire and obtain bulk telephony meta data). While the bill does in fact do this, now requiring a “specific selection term” to be utilized instead of bulk general trolling, and it hands over the holding of such data to the agents who hold it anyway (the private companies).   Indeed, the new Freedom Act even “permits” amicus curiae for the Foreign Surveillance and Intelligence Court, though the judges of the court are not required to have the curiae present and can block their participation if they deem it reasonable.   In any event, while some ring in the “win” for Edward Snowden and privacy rights, another interesting piece of this bill has passed virtually unnoticed: extending “maritime safety” rights and enacting specific provisions against nuclear terrorism.

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Iraq's Chemical Arsenal: Justification for War?

Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have “weapons of mass destruction” back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a “preemptive” war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.

Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.

The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:

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How Could US Signals of Weakness bring Russia and Syria to the Table?

That’s essentially the question Steve Saideman asked here (and which he more explicitly asked on Twitter).

His answer, which I find problematic, is

But here is the big problem in all of this: perhaps much of IR is not about bargaining and persuasion about commitment and resolve. Perhaps much of IR is a conflict of interests, and that countries engage in conflict when their various interests cannot be resolved.

He goes on to say

The amateur game theorist might want to argue that this then is not chicken or prisoner’s dilemma but deadlock.  And they would probably be right–that much of what is important in IR is what shapes the preferences of the actors, which determines the game being played.  I guess my main point is that much of the time, we are not playing chicken, so perhaps Schelling’s insights might not be all that useful and could even be counter-productive.

Notice how Steve implicitly assumes that either Schelling is God or bargaining is irrelevant or even impossible. As Steve might say, if he found himself on the other side of the discussion, “Holy mother of false dichotomies, Batman!  Time for some perspective sauce!”

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What Do International Law and Norms Say About Burning People Alive?

One line of discussion this past week has been whether it makes any kind of moral sense to think that  death by chemical weapon is so much worse than death by “conventional” weapons. Video imagery captured by BBC in the aftermath of another horrific massacre in Syria yesterday throws this into stark relief. At least ten children burned to death and scores others were left with horrifying injuries after a flammable substance was dropped on a school playground yesterday. Continue reading

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Intervention to Punish? Or to Protect?

stopsyriaTwo kinds of military intervention are being discussed and conflated by political elites (like Nicholas Kristof) and international diplomats. The first is an enforcement operation to punish a state for violating a widespread and nearly universal global prohibition norm against the use of chemical weapons. This is what Kristof refers to in the title of his Times op-ed, “Reinforce a Norm in Syria.”  The second is a humanitarian operation to protect civilians against a predatory government. This is what Kristof means when he compares proposed military strikes in Syria to intervention that happened in Bosnia and Kosovo and (tragically) didn’t happen in Rwanda.

Well, it’s useful to clarify which we are talking about since both kinds of operation involve very different tactics and different kinds of legal and moral reasoning. I discuss both at Foreign Affairs this morning:

[If punishing norm violators is the goal], the appropriate course of action would be to, first, independently verify who violated it…. Second, the United States would have to consider a range of policy options for affirming, condemning, and lawfully punishing the perpetrator before resorting to force, particularly unlawful force… Third, should the United States decide on military action, with or without a UN Security Council resolution, it would need to adhere to international norms regulating the use of specific weapons in combat.

But such a strike should not be confused with military action to protect civilians.   Continue reading

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The Syrian Chemical Attack: Things Fall Apart, the Centre Cannot Hold

The news out of the Damascus suburbs this morning is highly disturbing and, if the reports are confirmed that this was a chemical attack, no doubt will mark a turning point in the conflict.  Dan is somewhat skeptical that it will change the intervention calculus. I disagree.

For the better part of the past two years, the Obama administration has pursued to a strategy of conflict management and containment.  It doesn’t look like that policy has worked.  Today’s events appear to have been a major chemical attack with a large loss of civilian life.  The raw and devastating images will alter the political landscape in Washington, throughout Europe, and throughout the region.   This looks to be Syria’s Srebrenica. Continue reading

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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?

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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.

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