I can't help it. Every time Washington accuses a Third World leader of being "dangerous," I am reminded that defiant slaves were lynched in the United States for posing a threat to freedom. I admit I am biased because I grew up in a US-backed dictatorship and witnessed brutality perpetrated in the name of civilized values. From my perspective, chemical and biological weapons seem more like business as usual than a unique danger. Conventional weapons cause less alarm in the West not because they are any less devastating, but because the victims are overwhelmingly people of color in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
So what about Saddam Hussein? Global enforcers claim that his weapons of mass destruction, if they still exist, pose an unparalleled danger to the world. Skeptics have noted that he has no ties to Muslim extremists and no desire to harm the West. Most of Iraq's neighbors are more concerned about American expansionism. They remember that at the height of its military might, Iraq, with its chemical and biological weapons intact and with support from all major Arab and world players, was not dangerous enough to defeat the isolated, then chaotic Iran next door after eight years of war. They may even remember that during the same decade, Nicaragua was devastated by Washington precisely because a new government there did not mistreat its own people. If it is American lives George Bush is trying to save, one critic asked, why are American cigarette manufacturers not bombed out of existence (or shut down) for chemically killing two hundred thousand Americans each year?
Yet a key White House claim, the assumption that chemical and biological weapons are uniquely dangerous, is largely unchallenged, even in dissident circles. Last December, a cargo ship destined for Yemen was allowed to proceed, after being seized on orders from Washington, when it was found to be carrying nothing more lethal than North Korean Scud missiles! The officialdom tells us that conventional weapons like Scuds are lesser killers. It is important to examine this classification of weapons critically, as the issue can rise again when another weakened dictator sitting on abundant natural resources looks ripe for overthrow. We can count on that, because spending upwards of one billion dollars daily on keeping the US itself dangerous, equal to the combined military budgets of the next thirteen powers, is an investment like any other: it has to pay for itself and more by being productive.
"Lethal" is a designation that serves American propaganda best when its meaning is elastic. Conventional weapons that were considered too dangerous for export a generation ago are now offered to brutal US allies, after more dangerous countermeasures are developed to maintain America's supremacy. In a moment, I will address why Washington is not interested in pursuing a similar arms race in the chemical and biological arena. It is worth noting here that killer epidemics have in fact been delivered efficiently with conventional arms, making the latter indistinguishable from "weapons of mass destruction." US bombing of Iraq's water and sewer systems in 1991, followed by a decade-long ban on imports of medical supplies and spare parts, have allowed diseases to decimate one out of every 25 Iraqis, according to UN estimates. That is roughly one million people, four to five times the death count in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Sudan, the 1998 US missile attack on a factory that previously supplied half of that country's affordable medicine caused many thousands of premature deaths from disease, as would a biological weapon.
Furthermore, cutting edge US military technology has pushed the killing power of conventional arms to levels that rival small nuclear bombs, as The Washington Post emphasized early in the war on Afghanistan.
So treating chemical and biological weapons as uniquely comparable to nuclear bombs is obsolete. Nevertheless, opinion makers prevent the erosion of this outdated distinction, which legitimizes the development and export of incredibly devastating conventional weapons. There are two reasons for this. First, if it is admitted that there is no substantial difference, Western powers would face an impossible choice: end the immoral arms race that has killed millions in the Third World directly and many times more through imposed poverty, or give up the fairy tale that glorifies Whites as purveyors of high civilization and life-enhancing scientific enterprise. Either option would have the unbearable consequence of shaking up the existing world order. Let us consider these possible outcomes for a moment.
Humanitarian pretensions have long served as a fig leaf for imperialists. When direct rule was the method of choice for exploiting people of color, a common justification for conquest was that inter-tribal savagery was madness and warring natives had to be taught to respect human life. But in their zeal to reorganize their dominions into hierarchies like their own, colonial administrations created or expanded class conflicts (with selective education and hiring, privatized land tenure, etc.) that led to terrible violence. Most territories were given their independence as local elites showed readiness to "keep the peace" on behalf of European and US interests with weapons from the former masters. That is where we stand today, when weapons of mass destruction are banned in part to mask once again the Western elite's own uninterrupted savagery as merchants of horrific weapons. The conventional balance of terror, we are told time and again, ensures stability and therefore saves lives!
Nor is slowing down exports of conventional weapons an option, from a business point of view. Nonstop investment in advanced technological research for more effective killing machines is essential if the US is to stay ahead of the pack. So foreign markets must be developed in order to recover the extreme cost of military innovation (and to test the new products). America has been the world's leading arms exporter for nearly a half century, human rights rhetoric aside, and purchases by shaky Third World elites have funded new generations of American weapons. As the new, more lethal weapons increase global insecurity, the same elites have to acquire those as well so as not to fall behind. Allowing conventional arms to be equated with chemical and biological weapons could increase pressure on the Atlantic powers to dedicate the resources to a genuine global security framework less profitable than today's balance of terror. That, of course, is not acceptable.
The other reason behind banning only non-conventional weapons is that chemical and biological agents could let Third World governments, or worse yet their unruly subjects, narrow the "danger gap" that weakens their bargaining power. Reduced military disparity might disrupt the "civilized" world order and force the global elite to genuinely negotiate for what they need. Here's how. American military edge - the capability to overwhelm a challenger's defenses-depends entirely on ever more sophisticated weapons, which the US scientific-industrial complex is especially adept at inventing. Less complex weapons with comparable mass killing power could upset the status quo. Acquisition and weaponization of chemical and biological agents requires relatively less investment, technical know-how, and official approval. Also, buyers need not become dependent on sellers for advisors and spare parts, thus jeopardizing both American arms sales and the valuable influence that military exports and advisors ensure.
Moreover, losing the authority to dictate the choice of weapons could also cost Washington the exclusive right to decide legitimate targets. American and allied leaders consistently condemn the targeting of civilians, even though countless thousands of civilians have died "by mistake" or as "collateral damage" in US attacks overseas. Due to America's technological superiority, the US can fight (deliver danger) best if opponents engage only its armed forces. For the same reason, Third World challengers can best cut their losses when they target American civilians in metropolitan centers, which they can do more easily with chemical and biological weapons (and/or attacks like September 11).
To conclude, from a Third World perspective the world is indeed a dangerous place, but not especially so because of proliferation of some particular category of weapons. With millions already killed and millions more starved to death with conventional weapons, there is no reason to think chemical or biological weapons could cause worse devastation. After all, leaders, and not weapons themselves, decide how much destruction is admissible. Saddam Hussein, to take one example, had abundant chemical weapons when he fought Iran for eight years. But he reserved them for occasional use in limited battles in border areas, preferring conventional bombs and rockets for other targets, such as Iranian cities. No one disputes that all but a small fraction of the casualties in that war were inflicted with conventional weapons.
To victims and survivors of organized violence, their fate is no more painful or unjust when they are targeted with chemical or biological means; to the world's metropolitan elite, there is a vast difference. The victims of conventional weapons are overwhelmingly people of color, drawing as much attention as gun violence in ghettos gets in American public opinion. Casualties of chemical and biological warfare, on the other hand, could include Europeans and Americans in large numbers. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, what changed on September 11 was the direction of violence, not the level of it.
About the author:
Rostam Pourzal writes contrarian-style political analysis regularly for the Persian print media Shahrvand (Toronto/Vancouver) and Iranians (Eastern US).
... Payvand News - 3/3/03 ... --