Monday, September 02, 2013

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

It's an argument that has circulated since the question of responding to Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons began, but for some reason your humble blogger was particularly irritated by hearing Dominic Tierney make it on CNN last night, someone whose CV suggests he should know better: why should we single out chemical weapons for an international response when conventional weapons kill many more people?

Regulating the conduct of war is a messy and non-idealistic business. It begins from the premise that bad things are going to happen and that since parties are already at war, the normal means of enforcement don't mean a whole lot. In particular, the norms of war have to be realistic about excuses and justifications. Thus of course a norm of war should ban the use of conventional artillery against civilians. But it's impossible to operationalize this because one side can always claim that its weapons just aren't accurate enough or that the enemy is mingling in civilian areas, making precise attacks impossible.

Hence the approach of banning types of weapon, especially chemical weapons which are clearly indiscriminate at their point of use, and which contort people's normal survival instincts: in a chemical weapons attack, rushing for shelter will probably kill you. Of course it's a blunt norm but one which reflects a century-old public revulsion, can be verified, and has some prospect of prevention, deterrence, and enforcement.

Can we get on CNN now?