Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

WMDs: The Biggest Lie of All; Chemical and Biological Weapons Are a Red Herring. They Are Banned Because They Provide Low-Cost Defence to Poor Nations. Cluster Bombs Are Just as Lethal

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

WMDs: The Biggest Lie of All; Chemical and Biological Weapons Are a Red Herring. They Are Banned Because They Provide Low-Cost Defence to Poor Nations. Cluster Bombs Are Just as Lethal

Article excerpt

It is easy to forget what the advocates and adversaries of going to war with Iraq had in common. Neither side would tolerate Saddam Hussein possessing chemical and biological weapons; only the question of how to disarm him divided Britain. The possibility that he might have "weapons of mass destruction" (WMDs) temporarily convinced a majority of Americans and Britons to support the war.

The continuing struggle to find the weapons has prevented critics from thinking twice about why we are looking for them. George Bush and Tony Blair did not create the west's special fear of chemical and biological weapons, but they fought their war to enforce the international arms control regime that bans them. The taboo against unconventional weapons--along with an arms control system that prohibits entire classes of weapon rather than specific uses of them--set the terms for the prosecution of the war on shoddy evidence and without international support.

The special aversion to chemical and biological weapons (CBWs) is at root irrational, while the arms control policy discriminates against poor countries, can only be preserved by further wars and actually restricts the possibility of less destructive forms of global conflict. It's time to examine the taboo and reform the system.

The Bush and Blair case for unilateral war depended on two false assumptions. The first was that such weapons should be classed as uniquely sinister, the second was that their mere existence should be regarded as a threat. Neither withstands scrutiny.

Chemical weapons, legally defined as compounds "which through [their] chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals", and biological weapons, "microbial or other biological agents, or toxins ... that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes", kill in different ways from conventional weapons. But CBWs are neither more dangerous nor more evil. They are criticised for being invisible and indiscriminate and for killing in an agonising, drawn-out fashion, but many conventional weapons share these characteristics. High-speed bullets cannot be seen before they hit their targets, daisy-cutter bombs destroy an entire area, explosives and bullets rarely kill quickly or painlessly--not to mention the suffering caused by the child-killing cluster bombs of the RAF and US air force.

"[The moral distinction] is arbitrary," says Andrew H Kydd, an assistant professor at Harvard University who writes on unconventional arms control and international relations theory. "How much worse is it, if at all, to die from sarin than to bleed to death from a bullet in the stomach while you lie around on the battlefield for five hours?" No less a luminary than Winston Churchill once questioned the special stigma attached to chemical weapons. "I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas," he said as secretary of state for war and air in 1919.

"In the Middle East, they are not seen as illegitimate," says Gary Samore, a weapons expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former adviser to Bill Clinton. "They are seen as the only viable way to balance Israel's nuclear capacity."

The only reason a canister of VX gas is classified as a WMD while a cluster bomb is not is that western militaries use one but not the other. "WMD" is a meaningless, catch-all term that the US and Britain have recently discovered can be used to drum up support for invading hostile countries. No one would call machetes WMDs, but they were used to butcher 800,000 Rwandans in 1994.

The treaties that prohibit the possession of chemical and biological arms rest on the idea that a weapon's morality is determined primarily by how it kills, not whom it kills or how many. But what determines a weapon's destructiveness is its use. It is one thing to drop a bomb in a desert, another to drop one on enemy troops, and a third to drop it on a city--regardless of whether its contents are explosives or poisons. …

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