Moral vacuums and chemical weapons

Chemical weapons are rotten.

Really horrible. Like the most disgusting things you can think of. They even belong to that most rancid of clubs – the WMD club. Urgh. And no-one wants to belong to that club… Well, apart from quite a large number of developed nations.

(don’t ruin the urgh… there were feel-good points to be had from the urgh).. apologies. Urgh.

To think clearly about the possible use of Syrian chemical weapons (and surely policy people should be thinking chem-bio, right?) we need to stop the editorialising about just how urgh they are. Saying chemical weapons are horrid is no more compelling a statement than to say that teenagers are stroppy, academics are not natural socialisers and that large French people carrying cars are not terribly reliable. We need to think in a moral vacuum, rather than to get caught up in the sort of statements that constitute motherhood and apple pie. We did, afterall, make this mistake with another leader in the middle east called Saddam, based on the notion that we rightly considered that he went hunting in Berkshire.


So, allow me to very temporarily occupy a moral vacuum (don’t panic, I’ll square it with the vicar next Sunday).

If I was a middle eastern tyrant with a civil war that wasn’t going my way, and a chemical arsenal at the end of a series of phonecalls, I’d probably be thinking this:

* The use of any socially unacceptable weapon is to cause a shift in the pattern of the fighting. Gas in WW1 was used to try and revive some mobility to the frontline (to make the cavalry useful again), to ruin the morale of the enemy (afterall, if they’re scared of gas they might decide to run away) and if used properly to kill more of them without having to leave the comfy concrete confines / muddy, rat infested confines (delete as applicable) of the trench to do so. The same is true now. Will it transform the battle space? Will it scare them (ie convince some to defect, dissuade others from joining, persuade supportive communities to change their minds)? Will it kill lots of them in a way not achievable at the moment? I don’t think it’s for me to fill in those blanks, even sat in my temporary moral vacuum.

* Furthermore, the use of socially unacceptable weapons is also dependent on the tricky judgement call of whether the person firing them is going to win. And that’s not really known before the command is given: it’s why the command might be given. So, you might – in the role of tyrannical leader – decide that you’ve seen Gaddafi sodomised with a rifle and then killed in a not terribly pleasant manner, and that even if you fire your nastiness upon the enemy it might a) not alter that outcome or b) you won’t get hanged for war crimes because the international criminal court is all a bit against capital punishment. The penalties for firing don’t appear to be much different to the penalties for not firing, bar some bad press in the history books.

* But but but, the international condemnation will be un-be-lie-va-ble. There will be strongly worded statements in the UN. IN THE UN, no less. I don’t mean to be rude about the UN or any other international organisation, but if you have a government who have been put in the pariah box for, what, 30-odd years at least (probably the whole of the 40 years), I’m not sure that a very notional telling off from the UN is really going to cut any mustard (gas or otherwise). Yes, there are two major state actors commonly seen to be propping up the Syrian government, and yes, the use of chemical weapons might well cause those countries to consider that this is nuisance has moved too high up the nuisance meter to be ignored. But a canny actor in that part of the world, with cross-cutting ethnic tensions that run regionally (rather than nationally) might decide that in all the, er, create tension that could be caused from a few well judged mischiefs that survivability was still possible.


My point is this: within the moral vacuum some truly unpalatable acts might look palatable. From within and outside the vacuum we could observe that the comparison with Iraq holds very little water: in terms of military capabilities, connectivity with the west and friends elsewhere, established patterns of regimes being overturned, of the number of imprisonments and deaths of previous regime leaders etc etc.

Outside, however, we can use the lesson of the vacuum to say one very clear thing: western policy makers are going to need to think radically beyond the hackneyed lines of ‘persuading the Russian and Chinese governments to do more’, or the thinking around Iraq, or sanctions, or strongly worded letters to The Times to prevent this kind of escalation. If I wasn’t so in love with the whole democracy thing, I’d ask why we didn’t just focus more on regional stability and leave considerations of western style human rights and democracy as awkward details for someone else to think about. Afterall, when I wrote that the Egyptians were about to drink a cup of sick in 2010, it was a different cup I was thinking of, but this one doesn’t contain orange juice either. The ‘democratic’ revolutions in the Middle East (broadly defined) are going to generate precisely no better a situation for western policy makers than those regimes that went before. Bastards-we-understood, have been replaced by bastards-we-don’t-have-a-clue-about and that doesn’t strike me as particularly sensible (and no, I can’t work out which side of the vacuum jar that comment comes from). Current Syria has never really been on our side, a new Syria is almost guaranteed not to be. We need to think in old-school terms about containment and stability, and less about the schadenfreude of giving someone a kick who we have thought of as a pain.

The instant retorts – if they come – will be about atrocities and human rights. These retorts are entirely correct. As a human being, I entirely agree and all the human stories are horrendous and tragedies in their own rights. They cannot be underplayed. It doesn’t appear that statesmen always have this human view.. and thus we should try and understand this as a means by which to dealing with it.


11 thoughts on “Moral vacuums and chemical weapons

  1. Dear mr. Dover, contrary my time is currently occupied with other things from Syria, Irak, the Middle East or the American and maybe the British(even Romanian) policy(I’m alone and single since so many years since I’ve revealed my self-being or powerful personality and self-pride too), I find all the issues You and your collaboratives put here and elswhere too, to be very interesting and important for a future Ph.D. I want to start, immediately when I’ll have the full oportunities(professional & personal experiences included) too.The ‘democratic’ revolutions in the Middle East (broadly defined) are going to generate precisely no better a situation for western policy makers than those regimes that went before. Bastards-we-understood, have been replaced by bastards-we-don’t-have-a-clue-about and that doesn’t strike me as particularly sensible (and no, I can’t work out which side of the vacuum jar that comment comes from). In the same time, I’m afraid I am not permitted to open or browse with my mouse, neither the EU press page, nor that related with your name and a brief biography. What is more, I am really sorry I had neither the time nor the complex class of study, in my former research during the former Master I’ve been enrolled in. And I also notice you did not, too. Contrary to that, I took the time to read your interesting newspaper letter and I’m very surprised to find out You really remember my way of thinking and revealed a good historical perspective of my thougts(!!) All in all, please forgive me I’ve never graduated a college of Foreign Affairs or one of Linguistics first, in the same time I’ve only been in Italy for 3 weeks during a terrible vacation I had 10 years ago, in Bulgaria for a day and in Greece, in a vacation with a miserable group of teenagers and kids, for 1 week, when I’ve been a teen myself. Contrary to that, please let me sum up exactely as you do herew ‘Current Syria has never really been on our side, a new Syria is almost guaranteed not to be’. Speaking from my experience with the neighbours, the former colleagues and bosses and teachers and employers and emplyees and politicians and civilians and my family of handicapped elders and the on-line collaboratives I’ve never met/I don’t intend to ever meet, in my entire life too. Contrary to these, as we speak now about a plitical situation with an example of ‘never happening democracy’, I warn you that is also the case for Turkey, for Greece, for Romania, for U.S. and the majority from the political regimes in Europe and the E.U., too. But I don’t believe the policy and the justice and the business ever intended to make up or build a moral and unique or 2-sided world @least, for a really worthy liberal trade and commerce…Thank you and I really feel sorry I can’t understand your conspicuous informal style or manner of speaking, in your British and less formal way. Best regard from me!!(and thank you you are familiar with my 2 blogs on wordpress, could you also send me the diogital-free books-i need, since years ago pleaaaaaaaaaaassssssseeeeeeee(Bruce Bueno da Mesquita’s, political and diplomatic communication/and protocol, and the war and strategy books on Amazon and Kings of War too)

  2. Chris says:

    Rob, good think piece. Have you considered the perception that western logic and reason is a western thought process; such a thought process is often not replicated by those in power in the Middle East.

    • Rob Dover says:

      I have. And I spent a couple of years in the mid-2000s obsessing about this. I stuck with western frames with this one, mostly because the very top of the Assad government were educated in the west.. I assume our educational system had an impact(!). Point taken though.

    • Please let me reply to you both, as it is a matter I’ve been thinking about too. And it is real not only because of the impact the entire mass-media has today, but because the external services of information(the agencies dealing with the intelligence or espionage)have to cooperate and make exchange of info., because of some rules, isn’t that real? But i only know theory,could you please give us details, on that? Regards

  3. Pingback: Syria and chemical weapons

  4. Chris says:

    Rob, re. aforementioned obsession, where did it lead you? Having experienced the Arab Spring (lazy over extended phrase) I am confident that we in the West miscalculate in our prediction of Middle Eastern powerbroker’s FP due to the application of Western thought and logic that is isolated from Arab culture and religious influence. I am also not convinced that those ME powerbrokers that received a Western education adopted our reasoning into their thought process. The list of irrational and unpredictable power brokers that received a western education might include (Saif Gaddafi, Assads, SA princes…) Is this issue not at the heart of ME FP and western diplomatic efforts coupled to the balance of power?

    • Rob Dover says:

      Goodness. I’m not sure you need the malformed recesses of my thoughts on this.

      Towards the end, I got snared on a very practical concern of ‘what does this information matter’? Where does it get us in practical terms. Then I wondered whether it mattered in terms of how we should deal with a certain range of problems. I wondered about alternative approaches that were largely blind to the minutiae of the opponents context etc.

      I didn’t settle upon on any conclusions, and I think I had a reflex or immune system response to what looked like a genre of scholarship that had fallen down relativist rabbit holes concerning the joy of other cultures.

  5. Tom says:

    If we cannot understand the environment and culture in which we intervene then surely we will be unable to predict the likely outcome? Is this not the “practical” concern facing the UN and those willing to intervene in times of crisis.

    • Rob Dover says:

      Shades of grey. It is clearly right (and you can all the way back to Sun Tzu for this) that understanding the enemy and understanding how to break their will is crucial. My observation would be that whilst this is necessary, as is understanding the fluidity of the relationship with the enemy, we should not seek to become the enemy to defeat them. We need to know – quite coldly – what is necessary. In classic land mass warfighting we need to know that we can project more flying metal than they can. In Afghanistan we needed to understand far more what was making them fight etc. So the balance is weighted towards softer skills. In academic terms, there is a lot of scholarship that begs the question of which side the author is on. Reflection is laudable and necessary: going native is as problematic as ignoring cultural nuance altogether.

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