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A Protection Paradox

May 11, 2008

It is always wonderful, at this time of year, when grading a student’s paper teaches a professor something and leaves him/her thinking anew about ethical ironies in world politics.

My MPIA student, Christopher Farnsworth, who is now being recruited by the US Department of Defense, just wrote a fascinating analysis of Congressional policy on the sale of precision-guided munitions for my class on the “Rules of War.” (The paper, which is still in draft form as these things go, nonetheless contains a wealth of information on this issue, and is available here for those who know as little about this policy process as I did before I read it.)

Here’s the ethical irony his analysis raises. The US is generally committed to more bloodless war for primarily humanitarian reasons (hence the development of smart bombs and non-lethal weapons to avoid killing enemy civilians) but is highly selective as to which governments it will share this technology with so that they, too, can avoid hitting foreign civilians in their various wars. Why?

Farnsworth points out that humanitarianism would be better served by relaxing the rules for the dissemination of smart bomb technology. Yet he concludes it this option – selling our most precise weapons to those governments we trust least – would be politically unpopular. Americans, he thinks, are unlikely to support handing our potential adversaries advanced weapons, merely on the grounds it might save innocent lives elsewhere.

But I wonder. Why shouldn’t the US public support open sales of PGMs – that is, putting smart-bombs in the hands not only of our allies but also our enemies, out o sel-interest? Why would we (civilian voters) want to prevent our adversaries from having the capacity to avoid hitting our homes in an assault if someday they so chose? Shouldn’t our government want to extend us this protection?

Instead, the Presidential criteria for a country’s eligibility for Foreign Military Sales includes “strengthens the security of the United States and promotes world peace.” (World peace being very unlike jusr war.) In other words, we sell smart bombs to our allies (sometimes) but want our enemies – those likeliest to attack us – to use dumb bombs; and we associate this policy with national security and world peace. Why?

The paper (which is mostly about whether to ban dumb bomb sales) only speculates as to the logic here, but to me it seems like a puzzle that could be thoughtully investigated.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.