How Best to Support International Norms

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President Obama makes a point in Stockholm that we should work with:

First of all, I didn’t set a red line. The world set a red line. The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world’s population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty…

…Point number two, my credibility is not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’ credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important.

Use of a chemical weapons is a violation of the rules of war, a war crime. There is a decent argument to be made that America should “stand up” and enforce violations of the rules of war.

It is also violation of the rules of war to target civilians. It’s a violation to wear civilian clothing while making war, that is, it is illegal for soldiers to hide among civilians. (Contrary to  critics of the west, it’s not illegal to harm civilians while targeting soldiers hiding among civilians.) These two war crimes make up what we call terrorism.

The problem is that terrorism is the modus operandi in conflicts across the world. Should America “stand up” to violations of the rules of war in every one. Neither Bush, Cheney nor Wolfowitz ever had a doctrine so aggressive.

Are chemical weapons a greater crime than terrorism? Chemical strikes kill on a greater scale than an average terrorist strike, but terrorist strikes can be big. What’s more, terrorism’s scalability makes it more effective, and so more terrible.

It is argued that the deaths from chemical weapons are particularly horrible. It’s true that using chemical weapons make horror unavoidable but this reasoning assumes that  the terrorists are trying to avoid horror. They are not ! What’s more the cruelty of terrorism lies mainly it what it does to the non-victims. That is its purpose: to terrorize into submission the people who remain.

No, chemical weapons’ destructive power don’t make them a greater evil. The utility of terrorism makes it a greater evil.

Terrorism reduces the cost to the perpetrator. By hiding among civilians, he is less likely to be caught.

Terrorism maximizes civilian harm. They hurt civilians, of course. They also assure that civilians will be hurt in the counter-attack. They also enmesh civilians in war: the woman who knowingly harbors a terrorist next door ceases to be fully civilian.

Terrorists deserve dishonor but their colleagues don’t appear to hold them in contempt. Neither do our media. The mechanism that might have naturally limited the evil has failed.

With all the advantages of terrorism, it is becoming ever more effective as a way to reach political goals. If we are to prioritize war crimes, terrorism is the highest priority because there is no limit to the evil of terrorism.

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