Thursday, October 04, 2007

The prevention of genocide

Oliver Kamm * explains:

Israel's strike in Syria

There is an important article in The Spectator by James Forsyth and Douglas Davis about Israel's bombing raid on a Syrian target on 6 September. The authors of the article believe we narrowly escaped World War III. They reconstruct events this way:

According to American sources, Israeli intelligence
tracked a North Korean vessel carrying a cargo of nuclear material labelled
‘cement’ as it travelled halfway across the world. On 3 September the ship
docked at the Syrian port of Tartous and the Israelis continued following the
cargo as it was transported to the small town of Dayr as Zawr, near the Turkish
border in north-eastern Syria.

The destination was not a complete surprise. It had
already been the subject of intense surveillance by an Israeli Ofek spy
satellite, and within hours a band of elite Israeli commandos had secretly
crossed into Syria and headed for the town. Soil samples and other material they
collected there were returned to Israel. Sure enough, they indicated that the
cargo was nuclear.

Three days after the North Korean consignment arrived,
the final phase of Operation Orchard was launched. With prior approval from
Washington, Israeli F151 jets were scrambled and, minutes later, the
installation and its newly arrived contents were destroyed.

I wrote about this raid a fortnight ago and made three immediate observations. Most important, we can be thankful that Israel appears to have successfully interdicted an operation that makes a mockery of international efforts to counter nuclear proliferation. Here's another point.

It's an open secret that Israel's political and diplomatic leadership did not favour the Iraq War**. As Israel is a US ally, this was never said in public but it was a widely held position. It is certainly advanced in private by the most senior figures in Israeli politics. The view was that in tackling Saddam Hussein the US-led coalition was going after the wrong regional tyrant. Iran represented the genuine threat. The mistaken focus on Saddam and the failure thus far to establish a stable democratic Iraqi state have rendered more difficult an eventual reckoning with Iran's emerging military power.

I disagree with this view, which is to say I believe the US and its allies were right to overthrow Saddam by force, and ought to have done it much sooner. One of the most important reasons is reinforced by Israel's action in Syria.

The issue of WMD in Iraq became an immense political liability for Tony Blair and President Bush. To a certain extent they brought it on themselves through advancing the case for military intervention by symbol more than exegesis. The genuine grounds for concern were set out pellucidly by Rolf Ekeus, the first chairman of UNSCOM, in the Washington Post in June 2003:

Detractors of Bush and Blair have tried to make
political capital of the presumed discrepancy between the top-level assurances
about Iraq's possession of chemical weapons (and other WMD) and the inability of
invading forces to find such stocks. The criticism is a distortion and
trivialization of a major threat to international peace and security.

During its war against Iran, Iraq found that
chemical warfare agents, especially nerve agents such as sarin, soman, tabun and
later VX, deteriorated after just a couple of weeks' storage in drums or in
filled chemical warfare munitions. The reason was that the Iraqi chemists,
lacking access to high-quality laboratory and production equipment, were unable
to make the agents pure enough. (UNSCOM found in 1991 that the large quantities
of nerve agents discovered in storage in Iraq had lost most of their lethal
property and were not suitable for warfare.)
Thus the Iraqi policy after the Gulf War was to halt all production of warfare agents and to focus on design and engineering, with the purpose of activating production and shipping of warfare agents and munitions directly to the battlefield in the event of war. Many hundreds of chemical engineers and production and process engineers worked to develop nerve agents, especially VX, with the primary task being to stabilize the warfare agents in order to optimize a lasting lethal property. Such work
could be blended into ordinary civilian production facilities and activities,
e.g., for agricultural purposes, where batches of nerve agents could be produced
during short interruptions of the production of ordinary chemicals.

This combination of researchers, engineers,
know-how, precursors, batch production techniques and testing is what
constituted Iraq's chemical threat -- its chemical weapon. The rather bizarre
political focus on the search for rusting drums and pieces of munitions
containing low-quality chemicals has tended to distort the important question of
WMD in Iraq and exposed the American and British administrations to unjustified

In short, the political controversy over the Coalition's failure to find WMD stockpiles in Iraq was hopelessly misconceived. The potential proliferation of WMD (an unhelpfully broad term that is nonetheless in common use) in the Middle East is deeply disturbing. The circumstantial evidence is strong that North Korea has illicitly and covertly been exporting nuclear technology to Syria. Baathist Iraq was not - as US policy once foolishly assumed - a stabilising factor to set against Iran and its clients (whether state actors, such as Syria, or terrorist groups, such as Hezbollah). It was an additional source of the threats that Tony Blair identified better than he articulated: bellicose and lawless tyrannies, allied to terrorist groups, and a transmission of WMD technologies from one to the other.

The Middle East is in a volatile state where autocracies, especially that of Iran and the forces it controls, are undermining constitutional government in Lebanon and Iraq, and threatening Israel with extinction. One factor at least we can count on is that Iraq is now out of that business. That is an important gain.

I confess I feel ridiculous trying to put together the various facts and responses that followed Israel's 6 September bombing attack on Syria. What do I know about how clandestine military campaigns work out, or why? But even ignoramus that I am in such subject, I registered a few puzzlers: Why did Syria decline to comment on what exactly was bombed? How come the only countries who issued some sort of negative noise were North Korea and Iran (+ one or two British talking heads)? How come the silence in Israel was so uncharacteristically hermetic this time? Israel's administration suffers from a chronic leaking disease, when it comes to goings on even in confidential cabinet meetings. It must have been something hugely important to cement all the usual cracks. The Spectator's scenario provides a very good approximation of what must have gone on.



* Oliver Kamm, whom I only began to read a few months ago, has come to represent the most lucid and trusty explicator of ethical ambiguities and knotty values and rights (such as the meaning of freedom of speech). He provides an accurate, reasonable and verifiable reading of events and speeches which I find very useful when I try to determine the merit or fault in human, civil, rights and ethics.

Who Is Oliver Kamm? Wikipaedia has an entry.

And here's The Normblog profile 9: Oliver Kamm

Oliver Kamm was born in 1963 and studied at Oxford and London universities. He began his career at the Bank of England and has since worked in the securities industry. He is part of the management of a pan-European investment bank that he helped set up in 1997. He served as adviser to the Independent MP Martin Bell from 1997 to the 2001 general election. He blogs at Oliver Kamm.

Why do you blog? To express a militant liberalism that I feel ought to be part of public debate but which isn't often articulated, or at least not where I can find it, in the communications media that I read or listen to.

What has been your best blogging experience? Receiving messages from writers I had no idea sympathized with this general outlook.

What has been your worst blogging experience? Remonstrating fruitlessly with another blogger who had posted sympathetic remarks about a German terrorist group.

What would be your main blogging advice to a novice blogger? Know how to write grammatical prose.

Who are your intellectual heroes? David Hume, Isaiah Berlin, Sidney Hook.

What are you reading at the moment? Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, and David Gilmour's biography of Rudyard Kipling, The Long Recessional.

Who are your cultural heroes? E.T.A. Hoffmann, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson.

What is the best novel you've ever read? Vanity Fair by W.M. Thackeray.

What is your favourite poem? Yeats's 'Sailing to Byzantium'.

What is your favourite movie? The Third Man.

What is your favourite song? Schubert's 'Der Hirt auf dem Felsen'.

Who is your favourite composer? Schubert.

Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you've ever changed your mind? Realising that the crucial distinction in politics is not between Left and Right, as I had once tribally thought, but between the defenders and the enemies of an open society.

What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate? Value pluralism.

What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to combat? Rousseau’s General Will.

Who are your political heroes? Alexander Herzen, Henry 'Scoop' Jackson, Conor Cruise O'Brien.

What is your favourite piece of political wisdom? 'Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.' - Isaiah Berlin.

If you could effect one major policy change in the governing of your country, what would it be? Recognizing same-sex marriage.

If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be Prime Minister who would you choose? It has to be Stephen Pollard.

What do you like doing in your spare time? The opera.

What is your most treasured possession? A 1927 limited edition of the collected poems of G.K.Chesterton inscribed by the author.

What talent would you most like to have? The ability in adulthood to pick up a foreign language as easily as a child does.

Who is your favourite comedian or humorist? P.G. Wodehouse.

Who are your sporting heroes? My father, a former Middlesex wicketkeeper.

Which English Premiership football team do you support? Wholly uninterested in football, but I'm quite tolerant of those who don't share my eccentricity.

** This observation must be juxtaposed with the Mearsheimer and Walt theory, which stipulates the very opposite. Consider the critique by a sympathetic reviewer, here:

The result is, bizarrely enough, an exculpatory portrait of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and the rest of the "Vulcans," whom Mearsheimer and Walt depict as naïve but fundamentally well intentioned. The American people should not blame them if they've made a mess of things in Iraq. It's not their fault, you see. Foreigners made them do it--or, if not foreigners, then Americans loyal to foreign interests.

Mearsheimer and Walt are a classic example of pundits hatching a thesis and then hacking away at the facts to make them fit. This is not to deny that their argument possesses a certain superficial plausibility.


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