Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Quick Thought on Chemical Weapons and "Red Lines"

A question going around the internet these days is "Why are chemical weapons a valid "red line" which we should take action on when the Assad regime crosses it?" (Not that I am yet convinced that Assad has used chemical weapons.) I want offer what I think the answer is to that question. I think there are a lot of poor answers being given and I have a theory as to why good thinkers are deliberately giving bad answers. I will start with what I think the answer is:

Using chemical weapons is seen as wrong because chemical weapons are indiscriminate and behave in such a way that whoever deploys them cannot even pretend that they are only targeting combatants. By nature, chemical weapons (like nuclear and biological weapons) cannot be used with precision. The negative judgments we make about the use of WMDs derive from the same intuition as our judgments about the discrimination consideration in jus in bello. The only difference, I think, is that here any talk about double effect sounds disingenuous because of the nature of the weapon. Therefore when someone employs chemical weapons they are knowingly and deliberately dropping all pretenses that they are only targeting combatants.

Once a combatant is no longer afraid to publicly admit that they are no longer playing by the traditional rules of just war, which they do by employing WMDs (or terror tactics), especially inside one's own borders in a civil war, other countries will rightly become antsy. The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis under the guise that the only people who were being killed were combatants and collateral damage. The employment of WMDs strips outsiders of their pretext of neutrality. Without such ability to stay neutral, countries of good will cannot say that it is an internal matter that is no harming bystanders, nor can they pretend there will not be third-countries that will not be impacted or worry about being impacted. (It should also force the UN to act under the new R2P regime, but I am pretty sure we won't see that happening.)

Chemical weapons are also almost all used as offensive weapons, which adds another layer to our discomfort. Using an offensive weapons or taking offensive action requires considerably more legal and ethical justification than using defensive weapons or taking defensive action, again, especially in a civil war. Assad has articulated no such justification, nor does anyone think he can. Therefore the international community should rightly worry that Assad is disobeying the international norms of war, which, one might think, is an adequate reason to call it a "red line" which we could expect him not to cross without consequences.

(Some really bad reasons for thinking that chemical weapons should be "red lines" are being offered, often just to dismiss them and "show" that after a bit of thinking there is no justification for taking chemical weapons to be particularly repugnant (the Talking Philosophy blog is particularly bad in this sense). Such silly answers as the reductio ad Hitlerum (Hitler used gas so it is bad) are rightly dismissed. But rarely do we see good reasons adequately discussed. This is the most disingenuous kind of philosophy. The argument is supposed to be: The best reasons don't hold, therefore there is no argument. This is a bad argument because we have no guarantee that we have just heard the only reasons or the best of them. In fact we heard bad ones.)  

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