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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  • Daniel Wright

    Also if it is post WW1 “norm” why did the US help Iraq gas Iran as the CIA admitted to last month? http://news.firedoglake.com/2013/08/26/cia-files-show-america-helped-saddam-hussein-as-he-gassed-iran/

  • Anonymous

    Sanctions, boycott, supplies to refugees–No Strike. The people of the US, the countries of the world, the UN– all are against this strike. The armchair commander is out of control. Giving the order to shoot Osama bin Laden went to his head. He wants a power trip, he wants to go, GO! Take McCain with you. There appeared to be a difference in the two men. Apparently not.

  • Anonymous

    If other nations will not react appropriately to the outrages that we know are happening in Syria at the hands of Assad, shall it simply continue? Is that the proposal that Mr. Holland is really suggesting? A unilateral response to gassing of thousands directly attributable to Assad’s desperate efforts to hold on to power the people of Syria do not want him to have should go unanswered by the world because he keeps some disgusting alliance with the leadership of Russia. Russians need to be ashamed as do all others who do not respond to what Bashar al Assad falsely blames on his armed opponents. As if they could obtain and organize delivery of such weapons. People are being absurd!

  • Anonymous

    Different times, different administrations. A different United States. Wasn’t that the time of Iran/Contra?

  • Anonymous

    “If other nations will not react appropriately to the outrages that we know are happening in Syria at the hands of Assad, shall it simply continue?”

    The limited strikes Obama has proposed will certainly not end the conflict, as Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear in a recent letter to Congress.

    Your comment assumes the international community is capable of ending the bloodshed. Perhaps that would be true in a parallel universe where a broad coalition was willing to wage an extended, all-out campaign, but the reality is that nobody wants to be drawn into a multi-factional civil war driven by communal animosity. We’d be better off trying to deal with the refugee crisis — an attainable goal that wouldn’t result in “blowback” and is life-supporting rather than lethal.

  • Anonymous

    That was one of a very few instances when the norm was violated. Overall, it’s held up pretty well.

  • Daniel Wright

    The norm seems to be “if your enemies do it – it’s a crime against humanity – the children. The children. If your allies do it, well, you need some help with targets?”

  • Anonymous

    At the same time, it’s an instructive example of how the ban has been treated by various countries: We oppose the use of chemical weapons, unless said opposition is against our national interests. This would also explain why Russia is blocking any attempt to reduce al-Assad’s hold on the country – they have too much at stake in Syria, certainly more than the U.S.

  • Anonymous

    It’s certainly true that political realists dominate the foreign policy establishment. And not just in the U.S.

  • Anonymous

    A case can be made that DU should be banned, but as of now, there’s no treaty or norm prohibiting their use.

    White phosphorous… incendiary rounds with WP are regulated under several treaties — they can’t be used against civilians or in civilian areas. But they can be used against military targets.

    I know this stuff doesn’t always make much rational sense!

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the civil strife in Syria will not end whatever the United States may do or not. However, I comprehend enough of our military weaponry and tactical capabilities that Mr Assad can be made to smart mightily. Deterrent works for all sorts of stances – military and diplomatic. What would strengthen any action or threat of action would be the world declaring that decency demands a halt by agreement to any further use of chemical weaponry. Assad has not only not offered that but has denied knowledge in spite of the fact that only his forces have both access and delivery systems operable to deploy chemical weaponry. I will not offer a lesson in American arms, but Assad and his generals should be very afraid.

  • Fritz Schenk

    Your response completely ignore the atrocities that the ‘rebels; are committing dayly including the use of chemical weapons

  • Fritz Schenk

    As I posted previously you also do not raise the issue of violence and atrocities by the so called rebels. These are West instigated groups of mostly mercenaries including alQaeda and associates. The aims of the West is to destabilize every countey in the Middle East for the purpose of always having an enemy to fight

  • Anonymous

    That’s right. I am aware of atrocities committed by “other parties” in the conflict in Syria. We don’t even know (at least, I don’t) how many “groups” in Syria oppose Assad’s regime, but the predominance of excessive force and now poison gas lies with the regime. The point is that we’re not talking about the typical kinds of outrageous behaviors of forces in armed conflicts (and you can pick any strife in history to find unbelievable examples of inhumanity to civilian and enemies alike). We are talking about a definite case of deliberate release of poison gas that clearly intended to take civilian casualties along with any combatants in the area. And there is NO definitive evidence that any rebel force has used poison gas or other chemical agents. In war bad things happen. In war, certain things are considered “badder” than others. It seems to me that Bashar al Assad is willing to use any means whatever to retain his grip on power. Millions displaced in-country and abroad; at least a hundred thousand dead (who knows what “side” they may have been on) and cities and towns reduced to rubble. What mad man wants power so badly that he is willing to do that to people with whom he claims kinship and states that he is “protecting” the country.

    I do not naively think that there is a good and bad side here and that there’s a good outcome around the corner for Syria. But, for goodness sake, look at the nature of what’s going on there. Assad might as well state “I’m the dictator here and I’ll kill and maim and bomb and shell and strafe as much as I like to keep my ‘throne’.” That’s been the message from his actions, and he’s got a coterie of hooligans willing to throw in their fate with his. There was an old song whose full lyrics I forget (if I ever knew them all) that has a line “you have to choose.” Seems to me we and our world have arrived at a choosing time.

  • Fritz Schenk

    I consider your position of what is done in war cynical. It would be suicidal for Assad to order the use of chemical weapons; I don’t believe he is suicidal. As you don’t mention Aleppo, you may not know of the use of chemical weapons including sarin by the ‘rebels’

  • Anonymous

    I disagree with your analysis, in that the West’s primary interest in the region is a stable energy supply.

    And I’ve written about the opposition elsewhere. It’s not relevant to this particular argument.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think anyone’s questioning the might of the U.S. military. But I find the assumption that we must strike to deter the use of CW simplistic. I think it’s important to uphold these norms when doing so doesn’t run a significant risk of making matters worse in an already ugly situation. When a strike comes with a significant likelihood of very ugly unintended consequences, than I think it’s a moral imperative not to launch it. And that’s the way I see this situation.

    It’s not a humanitarian intervention if it worsens a humanitarian crisis.

  • 19obert63

    I’m confused, I thought elements of Al Quieda were the bad guys?
    I propose that the good guys should wear white bombing helmets, and the bad guys should wear
    black helmets.

    My limited strike with bombs peace proposal would require increased production of military helmets (white),
    It could also be marketed as a nifty Christmas seller for children playing war games.
    I’m thinking– Davy Crocket coonskin hat market. It is time we all step up and become lobbyists “Ask not whatyou country can do for you, but……….”

    Due to the fact that we have been involved in about 10 wars since Viet Nam, and our Military does not want to go into Syria because of lack of troops. We may be receiving a subtle hint for investment. Is anyone out there thinking citizen army with a new draft? Wow, wow,wow- helmets profits will go through the roof! Rumors are flying in DC that next year tax returns will require supplemental information on hat sizes on all family members below the age of 60. Just a rumor, keep it under you white hat.

  • Anonymous

    We must make certain suppositions for the things that depend on means and motives and anticipated outcomes. That leaves us trying to thread a moving needle. You say there is most probably a way to amend the mess that is Syria (and to a great extent, the region of the world we call the middle east) without some others of us resorting to violent acts. I would like to believe in that possibility too. However, in the last 2 1/2 years, Bashar al Assad – supported by Iran and Russia and perhaps China – has refused any semblance of a move toward discussion, because his regime in unsupportable in any world forum. Okay, so that’s my take, but I think I reason with many serious minds on the subject.

    Given those circumstances, Mr Assad had deemed it okay to use any force against any segment of the population – rebel or civilian – that extends the days of his power. But his days are numbered. The world has few in it who would choose to treat with him or any “government” he can represent. It is clearly past time for Syria to have new governance. But in the environment that has been created, no one there trusts anyone else. At the same time, atrocities continue. Most are perpetrated by the Assad regime, as they have the most firepower by a considerable margin. Slice it how you will.

    Bringing up the lesser slights of one side or another does not diminish the fact that Assad’s people have committed a mass murder. Thousands affected, at least 1400 dead. The question is do we throw up our hands and do nothing or do we do what may be in our power to assert that there are things that are not tolerated. And I think we will be judged in the future for what courage we hold today.

  • Fritz Schenk

    Thank you for your response. And perhaps the interest on most of the region is energy. However, Syria?

  • Fritz Schenk

    Thank you for your response. And perhaps the interest on most of the region is energy. However, Syria?

  • Bruce Amsbary

    Who else has notice the dearth of opponents to this action on NPR? I’ve heard one strong voice against it – the vast majority of the remaining voices have voiced apologetics for this potential blunder. Mr Obama sounds just like the Bush II administration before the illegal invasion of Iraq. The U.S. is a global loose cannon & the biggest threat to peace on the planet.

  • Anonymous

    British reports have it that outside forces that joined the rebels brought in the chemical weapons and there was an accident, but that the chemicals did not come from Assad. We fell for the WMD once.

    The aggressor is the US. We have no right to attack a sovereign nation. We are not trying to police the world, we are trying to dominate the world! We tell other countries who should be their ruler. Disagree with us and beware! We hunt down those who do not agree with us.

    Beside breaking international law (the UN said this is an illegal strike), we are also breaking US law. Only Congress can declare war. Obama does not lose face if congress does not go along with his determination to attack Syria. Obama loses face for his grim determination to attack a sovereign nation on trumped up accusations of WMD. He loses respect nationally, internationally, and probably within his own family.
    Obama got the taste of power giving the word to shoot Osama bin Laden. We are a powerful country, the most powerful in the world. I am beginning to understand why Osama bin Laden did what he did. I didn’t like how it felt. The rest of the world does not like the feeling either.

  • Neal Camp

    Completely ignores the sufferings of the ordinary Syrian citizen. Gives no action alternative.

  • Neal Camp

    As usual, completely ignores the plight of the ordinary citizens of Syria and their sufferings. It must be wonderful to be an intellectual so that you can ignore compassion. Writer offers no action alternative and some long of action is long past due.

  • Anonymous

    We only need to look at Iraq and Afghanistan to see how well military
    action from the USA works to solve these problems. Our military did a
    very professional job but the problem was that we were all being lied to
    as is the case now in Syria. I think that if there is a question as to
    whether pouring blood and treasure on a problem is right or wrong, one
    might be wise to hold off at least until it is clear what we are
    fighting about. It has only been the US and British propaganda machines that attribute all the atrocities to Assad
    and none to the rebels. Now we find out that the US has been training
    rebel troops to fight in Syria for quite some time now. That would make
    it, not just a civil war but a US led (albeit covertly) coupe. That
    presents a really different picture from what we have been told.

  • Anonymous

    I am in total agreement with this line of thinking. A limited strike, no mater how limited, is a first step to further disaster.

  • Joyce Jones

    YES, ROB…IT WILL ESCALATE!

  • Anthony Endres

    “Out of the ashes of world war, we built an international order and enforced the rules that gave it meaning, 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?” ~Obama

    It says that such blanket hypocrisy is not seen globally as a virtue, President Obama.
    Because, what if we , the U.S., – provable without any question of a doubt – are among the ones who flout fundamental international rules and even are those who instigate and arm those heinous acts ? Since when does the “God-given, peace through strength” decider nation U.S.A. care for international rules?
    Whenever the U.S. , who otherwise tend to flout international rules, requires financial and military support for more wars, President Obama?

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Joshua! Why not calculate the cost of bombing Syria, quadruple it, and spend the money relieving the suffering of refugees instead of increasing it?

  • Anonymous

    You don’t know that for a fact, and in reality, it is highly unlikely that the rebels would have either access to or technology to deliver such weaponry.