Relative Evidentiary Standards?

Am I the only one who sees in the US official position on allegations by Israel and others of chemical weapons use in Syria, quite a different approach than the one the US has taken regarding allegations by Israel and others of a nuclear weapons program in Iran?  There was a very good story on NPR about the allegations concerning CW use in Syria this morning (see here) and of course it’s in other news outlets as well (see here).

The US seems to be requiring “conclusive evidence” of the use of CW in Syria before it will consider that its “red line” (where did this recently ubiquitous phrase come from anyway?) regarding Syrian use of WMD has been crossed, requiring the US to intervene in a significant way in the country’s bloody civil war. The standard being required by the US appears to be much higher than that required by Israel and also by France and the UK, who all appear convinced that CW have been used by the government in Syria against opposition forces.  In this Reuters piece, there is speculation that the US is trying to learn from its mistakes in the lead up to the Iraq war in 2003 regarding intelligence and the presence of WMD.  Some of that may be going on. But I can’t help thinking that what’s really going on here primarily is that, unlike the Iraq case in 2003, and unlike the Iran nuclear case, the US really does not want to get involved seriously in Syria, and so is moving the goalposts of evidentiary standard regarding WMD in this case so that they are unlikely ever to be met – intentionally.

I mean, think about all the US has done to Iran on the basis of nothing near “conclusive evidence” of an Iranian nuclear weapons program – in fact on the basis of no real evidence at all, and in the face of the US intelligence community saying Iran DOESN’T have a NW program. And yet the US has imposed crippling sanctions on Iran and has exerted every ounce of compulsory pressure it can muster on the basis of this lack of evidence.

What I’m saying is that the standard of evidence for the presence of WMD in the Iran case, the Syria case, and the Iraq case in US policy, seem very relative and circumstantial, and have much more to do with whether the US wants, for political, ideological, and self-interested reasons, to get involved in a specific situation, than it does with a consistent, law-based approach to dealing with suspected proliferation cases.

This shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise – its really just mirroring US policy in other areas, for example in humanitarian intervention. It’s common knowledge that the standard for serious US involvement in cases of humanitarian suffering has much more to do with the region where it is occurring, exactly who it is happening to, and what US economic and security interests will be served through getting involved, than it has to do with a consistent and genuine concern with humanitarian suffering. See the Kosovo case versus the Rwanda and Sudan cases.


12 Comments on “Relative Evidentiary Standards?”

  1. yousaf says:

    Good analysis, Dan.

    (As it happens, I think we should not get involved with Syria but not because of CW issues.)

    Re. the different standards, and the pre-occupation with Iran’s nuclear _capabilities_ I think it’s useful to go back to Huntington. In Samuel Huntington’s book the “Clash of Civilizations” there are some useful quotes on arms control post-cold war — e.g. excerpted in an essay here:

    Click to access The%20Clash%20of%20Civilizations%20-%20Samuel%20Huntington%20-%20-%20Foreign%20Affairs%20article.pdf

    “Another result is the redefinition of
    arms control, which is a Western concept and a Western goal. During the Cold War the
    primary purpose of arms control was to establish a stable military balance between the United
    States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies. In the post-Cold War world the
    primary objective of arms control is to prevent the development by non-Western societies of
    military capabilities that could threaten Western interests. The West attempts to do this
    through international agreements, economic pressure and controls on the transfer of arms
    and weapons technologies.

    “The conflict between the West and the Confucian-Islamic states focuses largely, although not
    exclusively, on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, ballistic missiles and other
    sophisticated means for delivering them, and the guidance, intelligence and other electronic
    capabilities for achieving that goal. The West promotes nonproliferation as a universal norm
    and nonproliferation treaties and inspections as means of realizing that norm. It also threatens a variety of sanctions against those who promote the spread of sophisticated weapons and
    proposes some benefits for those who do not. The attention of the Wests focuses, naturally
    on nations that are actually or potentially hostile to the West.”


    One should also read John Mueller’s “Atomic Obsession” for some straight talk on the misuse of arms control — I recommend it to all my students:

  2. JP Zanders says:

    Dan, I am intrigued by your comment. What if the Obama administration is right to be sceptical about all the allegations? Have you considered that other states might be trying to push the USA across its self-imposed red line in order to have military intervention?

    I know I am hard to be convinced about CW use allegations, but I also know that it can happen. Syria is the kind of battlefield where by now everybody seems to be expecting that it should happen, so all kinds of symptoms are being attributed to chemical warfare without consideration of plausible alternatives.

    So the questions I am asking myself this time around are:

    Yes, dilution and drooling are symptoms of sarin exposure, but not the only ones. And they are not limited to sarin. Why only one person? Why do I find the hospital setting again unlike what I would expect in a case of chemical exposure? Why is the person ‘foaming‘ in hospital, considering the rapid action of sarin (death possible within 1 minute after exposure, unless an antidote was administered)? Is he still alive? After all the drooling happens as the poisoning is taking over the body (dilution is an early reaction, and a first indicator to chemists that they might have been exposed to a neurotoxicant, even in very low dosages).

    I do not recall pictures of Iranians or Kurds ‘foaming’ as this person seems to be doing in the images that are circulating. Foaming is described in other conditions, for example in the case of drowning.

    All victims are incidental, they are never presented in a cluster of people with similar symptoms in various stages of poisoning. The hospital settings are not right – and even if the images reflect actual (rather than staged) hospital conditions, how comes that so many people can be safely around the victim without any anti-CW protection?

    I do not know the facts on the ground, of course, but unless I get more relevant details I will remain sceptical.

    • Dan Joyner says:

      Hi Jean-Pascal,
      Yes, I should explain myself further. I actually am in favor of requiring a high standard of evidence of the existence/use of WMD, and so in general I think the US is right to be requiring a high standard in the case of Syria. And they certainly should have required a higher standard of evidence than the one employed in Iraq 2003. I think that the standard of evidence employed in the case of Iran has also been far too low, and that sanctions and other coercive measures have been enacted on the basis of far too little evidence of the presence of a NW program in Iran.

      So in this post I am primarily observing the difference in standards applied, but my normative judgment about the standard that should be applied is much more aligned with the standard adopted in the Syria case, than with the standards adopted in the Iran and Iraq cases.

      Whether the specific standard being employed in the Syria case is slightly too high and impossible to satisfy in its particulars, I’m not sure. It may be. But like you, I would prefer to err on the side of caution.

      • yousaf says:

        Also since the US DNI has high confidence Iran is not making nuclear weapons, the W in the WMD there is missing. So is the M and the D, for that matter.

        “What I’m saying is that the standard of evidence for the presence of WMD in the Iran case, the Syria case, and the Iraq case in US policy, seem very relative and circumstantial, and have much more to do with whether the US wants, for political, ideological, and self-interested reasons, to get involved in a specific situation, than it does with a consistent, law-based approach to dealing with suspected proliferation cases.”

        Yes. And in the Iran case our DNI confirms with high confidence the lack of the (nuclear) WMD.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    SecDef Hagel on Iran, Apr 21

    “But the bottom line is that Iran is a threat. It’s a real threat. And the United States’ policy has been very clear on this. And I think everyone knows it. As other nations, the — the Iranians must be prevented from developing that capacity to build a nuclear weapon and deliver it. And you work out from there.”

    SecDef Hagel on Syria, Apr 24

    “Suspicions are one thing, evidence is another. I think we have to be very careful here before we make any conclusions (and) draw any conclusions based on real intelligence. That’s not at all questioning other nations’ intelligence. But the United States relies on its own intelligence.”

  4. Cyrus says:

    Actually, the US doesn’t even claimat there is a nuke weapons program in Iran. Instead the “threat” is characterized as Iran’s “intention to acquire the capability” to make nukes. This is deliberately worded. For one thing, no amount of fruitless IAEA inspections can disprove an intention to possibly do something in the indefinie future, It also means that no mattter what Iran does, i can never avoid the charge — no matter howmany inspections is tallows, it cant prove that it may not on day in the indefinite future build a bomb. Elbaradei pointed out that the IAEA cannot measure future intentions.

    • yousaf says:

      Indeed, even a former US hostage, Amb. Limbert basically said US negotiating strategy is full of shit: (I paraphrase)

      ““First and foremost we believe the President needs to make that decision – ‘I want a deal’ – and instruct his people to get a deal,”


      i.e. even the decision to work towards a deal has not yet been taken.

      Must be Iran’s fault that negotiations ain’t working.

    • Don Bacon says:

      It’s “I and A” — intentions and ambitions.
      Very bad, these.

      from the UN News Centre:
      Nuclear ambitions of DPR Korea and Iran top agenda at UN-backed non-proliferation forum

      22 April 2013 – Tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme and threats from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) dominated today’s opening of the second preparatory conference of the parties to the United Nations-backed treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in Geneva.
      And those tensions! Take two aspirin . . .

      back to ambitions, – they can be postponed and/or uncertain – headlines:
      –Israel Says Iran Has Postponed Nuclear Ambitions
      –Iran’s nuclear ambitions are still uncertain

      There’s a book on Iran’s ambitions:
      Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions: Shahram Chubin

      NPR has a complete section on it
      Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions

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