The ethics of Syrian intervention


Here are thoughtful questions to ask yourself regarding American intervention in Syria:

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4 thoughts on “The ethics of Syrian intervention

  1. Arthur, I would very much like to view the questions you referred to, as well as your respected opinion of the situation and the “remedy.” Can you please oblige me?

    • A more evil kind of evil? As ghastly as the deaths of between 500 and 1,500 (estimates vary widely) men, women, and children from chemical weapons clearly are, does the importance of chemical deaths trump the tragedy of the estimated 100,000 Syrians who have been killed by conventional weapons? The argument that chemical and biological weapons are a more evil kind of evil has been applied since the U.S. Civil War and was solidified during World War I. Even though poison gas accounted for less than 1 percent of battlefield deaths, the international community concluded that the weapon was so gruesome that it must be outlawed for the sake of decency and humanity. But death from any number of conventional weapons can be equally as horrifying in different manifestations. When and why, then, are chemical weapons in a different category? As retired U.S. Army colonel and former State Department adviser Lawrence Wilkinson points out in an interview in the Washington Post, North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il “killed thousands if not millions more with starvation, yet we did nothing substantive. Is it worse to die of gas or hunger?”
      Is there a sliding scale for the ethics of a heinous action? Chemical weapons attacks are not rocket science, in a quite literal application of that term. You don’t need a particularly sophisticated delivery system, such as missiles or highly refined fissionable nuclear material, to create many chemical or biological weapons. Without being specific to the point of posing a public health risk, I can tell you that certain cleaning supplies available at any drugstore can produce a gas pretty much identical to one used on the battlefields of World War I. Biological warfare can be low-tech to the point of being primitive: In the Middle Ages, attackers flung diseased corpses over castle embankments to infect the residents inside. The point is that the moral calculus of punishment often takes into account the ease of the crime and the related perceived need for deterrence. Note, for example, the draconian penalties for counterfeiting — an act that at its most basic level can be accomplished in a crude fashion with a high-quality photocopier. Or note how U.S. law enacts fearsome retribution for insider trading precisely because communicating nonpublic but potentially profitable information is so easy that (so the theory goes) it would be commonplace if the violation did not carry such an enormous risk.
      Do we succumb to perfection by paralysis when weighing a difficult decision? As Winston Churchill noted, waiting for a faultless argument for a course of action pretty much rules out any action because absolute certainty generally does not exist anywhere at any time. Currently, the most salient aspect of what moral debate exists about Syria centers on attaining a certain level of proof that (a) an attack did happen and (b) that the Assad government was behind it. But what level of certitude must we attain before the United States can commit ethically to a punitive strike? Can we ever realistically hope to sew up every detail? In a similar vein, can we ever hope to definitively conclude that every diplomatic option has been played out before we attack? Is waiting for a larger consensus always the “right thing to do,” even if it draws out the risks associated with an already demonstrably deadly situation?

      • What makes chemical weapons especially heinous and in a special class, together with nuclear weapons is that they cannot readily discriminate between combatants and defenseless civilians.

        With the extraordinary loss of civilian life in contemporary warfare, there is a concerted movement in humanitarian circles to reduce loss of life among non-combatants. Conventional weapons can be targeted exclusively at combatants. Nerve gas, which is subject to the vagaries of the wind, cannot not.

        It is this aspect of chemical weapons that reinforces its proscribed character, and in my view, rightly so.

      • Isn’t this more theoretical than reality? How many civilians were killed by conventional weapons in . . . .you name it. What makes nuclear weapons different to me is the lingering effects of radiation that can go on for generations.

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