The US, in cooperation the the UK and France, have just launched military strikes on Syrian regime facilities, with the declared intention to punish the use of chemical weapons.
One of the main worries about these strikes is that they are targeted at a regime that is backed up by the presence of Russian troops who fight alongside the regime. Observers are justly worried that, if anything goes wrong, such moves may bring us closer to nuclear war.
In the run-up to the strikes, Friday’s Economist newspaper (14th-20th April, p. 11) argued, under the title of The duty to deter, that
Punishing the use of chemical weapons will not end the suffering in Syria, or unseat Mr Assad. But if the taboo on chemical weapons is allowed to fade away, other despots will be tempted to use them, too.
Let us look at this line of argument, taking into account the danger of nuclear escalation: if nuclear powers showed restraint in punishing the use of chemical weapons in a situation where the alleged perpetrator is fighting, on their own territory, alongside another nuclear superpower, would it follow that other despots will be tempted to use chemical weapons, too? I think we would need to give a qualified answer to that question, which goes beyond a simple yes or no. Yes, other despots working alongside a nuclear superpower may feel emboldened to use chemical weapons. No, it would be unwise for those despots, who are not fighting alongside the forces of a nuclear superpower, to assume that such action may not turn them into targets for retaliatory strikes.
Only last year, the Economist freely acknowledged that its support for the 2003 Iraq invasion was wrong. While it is understandable that the press seeks to make a neat and succinct case for or against something, the Economist should now be wary of any ill-founded sabre-rattling, and weigh each case for military action with due consideration for context.