The Irreconcilable Paradox of Calls to Strike Syria

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President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, left, speaks about the crisis in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

When Barack Obama announced his determination to strike the Syrian government after it allegedly deployed chemical weapons against civilians, he explained his rationale. “Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning,” he said. “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”

The tragic irony is that the U.S. violated a cornerstone of international law at that very moment in the White House Rose Garden. Article two of the United Nations charter not only bars member states from using force, except in self-defense or in conjunction with the international community, it also prohibits states from threatening to use force. Under the charter, it’s the only international norm that countries are empowered to enforce unilaterally.

This is the central paradox of Obama’s promise that he will intervene in Syria without international support if he must.

Obama, and other advocates of a punitive strike against Bashar al-Assad, argue that it is necessary to enforce an important, 80-year-old international norm against using chemical weapons on civilians. By upholding the norm, you deter future uses of these ghastly weapons to slaughter civilians.

But without broad international support, that argument runs headlong into another norm, one that has had far more impact in creating a less chaotic world than the chemical weapons ban: the norm toward multilateral security.

As uneven as the process has been, the development of international laws and norms – and new institutions to enforce them — has represented a revolution in world politics that’s contributed to a remarkable, and largely uncelebrated reduction in global violence. Century Foundation fellow Michael Cohen made the liberal case for intervening in Syria on exactly these grounds, writing that “for such laws and norms to have any validity they occasionally need to be enforced.”

But the United States can’t enforce international laws and global norms without the “international” part.  “Without question, the norm toward multilateral action has meant more in terms of reducing the horrors of war than the norm against chemical weapons,” says University of San Francisco historian Christopher O’Sullivan, author of The United Nations. O’Sullivan points out that between 1914 and 1945, somewhere between 75 and 100 million people perished in wars “started by countries pursuing their own narrow, national interests.” While it hasn’t been a perfect world, in the 60 years since the U.N. was created only a fraction of that number — approximately 35 million people — have been killed in wars, mostly civil wars. “This has been a much, much more manageable system than what preceded it: a world of complete anarchy where countries pursued their interests at the expense of their neighbors,” says O’Sullivan.

Having to violate one norm to uphold another represents a classic catch-22. Consider, for a moment, their respective histories, and the impacts they’ve had on the world.

The prohibition against chemical weapons developed after World War I, when humanity woke up to the shocking reality of the carnage that could be inflicted with modern weapons – with machine guns, aerial bombardment and silent poisons that resulted in agonizing deaths by the thousands. Chemical weapons were first banned in 1925, under the Geneva Protocol barring the “Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare,” which would be signed by the Syrian government in 1968.

Markos Moulitsas, noting that an estimated 100,000 Syrians had been killed with conventional arms before we began a debate about intervening, calls the world’s outrage at Assad’s use of chemical weapons an “obsession with the delivery mechanism of death.” He writes: “to pretend that a line has been crossed and that this kind of murder is somehow worse than that other kind of murder is bizarre.”

But that ignores both the historic context in which the norm arose and the nature of international law. Rather than a discrete civil code, “international law” is a patchwork of treaties and widely agreed-upon standards for how combatants must behave. Chemical weapons were banned, in part, because they have limited utility on the battlefield – armies carry gas masks and protective clothing – and are essentially anti-civilian weapons of terror. Indeed, while their widespread use in World War I shocked and awed the public imagination, they accounted for only around 90,000 of the 16.5 million fatalities in that conflict.

Given how tough it is to establish these kinds of rules, it is without question important to uphold them when we can. But that argument cuts both ways. The prohibition against unprovoked acts of interstate warfare like the strikes being contemplated by the Obama administration is more tenuous; it has been violated more often and should be strengthened rather than undermined.

That norm grew out of the development of the United Nations system. The generation that created it was a deeply pessimistic one. They feared for humanity’s ability to survive a third World War with the new weapons of mass destruction they’d seen unleashed during World War II, especially atomic weapons. Multilateralism would be central to a new order of international relations, with an emphasis on conflict resolution rather than continual warfare.

And it achieved that to a large degree – turning interstate conflict from a constant to something close to an aberration. But it was far from perfect. Recalling that the League of Nations had failed three decades earlier because the great powers of the day had simply ignored it, the architects of the U.N. gave the five permanent members of the Security Council a veto in an effort to keep them engaged in the project. They had in mind a veto that would be used only on rare occasions in order to keep the great powers from ganging up on each other. But that convention was immediately thrown to the wind, as the “P-5” began blocking all sorts of resolutions to protect their allies.

In his Rose Garden speech, Obama said, “I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.” Humanitarian interventionists argue that if we refuse to act without the blessing of a fractured Security Council, then with few exceptions we’re essentially giving up on humanitarian intervention in general.

And that is true to an extent. But on other occasions when the Security Council refused to act, the U.S. nonetheless built some sort of international legitimacy before undertaking an armed intervention — we respected the spirit of the U.N. Charter, even if we didn’t follow it as black-letter law.

In the Balkans, U.S.-led interventions, like the invasion of Afghanistan years later, were sanctioned by NATO. In Liberia, we partnered with the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS). Even the Iraq war had the implied legitimacy of a long list of members of George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing.” But as of this writing, only France has signed onto Obama’s plan for limited strikes against the Syrian government (Turkey also favors intervention, but Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last week that any intervention must  be aimed at regime change rather than limited, punitive strikes).

The result, as Christopher O’Sullivan put it, is that this intervention “appears to have even less legitimacy, in terms of institutional support, than the Iraq war in 2003.” He adds that Obama is passing up an ideal chance to uphold the most important principle in international law. “It’s a head-scratcher to me that Obama’s been given an opportunity here to say, ‘well, in principle it would be nice to do this, but the realities of alliance politics and institutional support just aren’t there,” he said. “I actually think this maybe what success looks like. The way this is supposed to work is that if you can’t achieve consensus among the permanent five, then you either shouldn’t do something or there’s going to be a kind of asterisk next to it if you do.”

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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