Since rumors of an imminent U.S strike on Syria began several weeks ago, three different positions on the proposal have crystallized. A review of their claims helps clarify the strengths and shortcomings of President Barack Obama’s plan for military intervention.
The first position — call it the humanitarian imperative — is that suffering demands action. No one except the United States can or will stop the bloodshed, and if the U.S. does not act innocents will be slaughtered. Yet many innocents have already been slaughtered. The humanitarian imperative has applied throughout the long and bloody history of Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown, but has not convinced the U.S. and its allies to intervene. It is probably true that Barack Obama‘s call for military strikes is in part driven by concern for innocents, but it is notable that he made his case for armed intervention only once the world saw the results of chemical weapons.
Kosovo is often cited as a moral precedent for action, but in between Kosovo in 1999 and Syria in 2013, the world has learned much about the blind spots of humanitarianism. I worked as an intern at the Clinton White House during the Kosovo strikes. In Washington in those days, it was the argument of “never again” that convinced many of us that bombing was justified; humanitarian considerations were strong enough to justify action. In Syria, they have proven far weaker, in part because after Iraq they are met by widespread skepticism that the U.S. and other great powers ever act from purely moral intentions.
The second position – call it the anti-imperialist stance – emphasizes Western hypocrisy. The slaughter of civilians is a painful memory, but so is the history of great power politics both in the Middle East and around the globe. Given the impact that the U.S.-led “war on terror” has had on the world, the anti-imperialist position has proven strong. The pre-emptive demurral to intervene militarily in Syria by Great Britain, America’s reliable sidekick in global governance, is one example. The anti-imperialist position knows that the United States, along with other Western powers, has long interfered in the Middle East, shaping its realities contrary to the will of Middle Eastern peoples, before any decision about how to respond to the Syrian civil war loomed. The Iraq War showed that the humanitarian imperative — outrage about Saddam Hussein’s rape rooms, for example — can be mobilized to support a great power’s interests. It is not surprising that, after Iraq, the Obama administration faces a much more skeptical public.
The Obama administration has carefully avoided referring to humanitarian intervention – or its successor concept of “the responsibility to protect.” Instead, the president has framed the argument for intervention around the “international norm” against the use of chemical weapons.
The Kosovo action lacked full legal justification — yet no stormy debate about its legality ever took place, even if scholars have discussed it ever since. In contrast, the last few weeks have seen ceaseless arguments about the legality of military strikes against Syria. Would such action violate international law, because the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 abolished war as an instrument of national policy, and the United Nations Charter bans it except when it is defensive or authorized by the UN Security Council? Does the U.S. Constitution allow the president to use force when no real national security concerns are implicated? Even though Obama went to Congress to sign off, does that reflect legal necessity or the president’s canny tendency toward consensus-building?
A surprising amount of the debate in the U.S. has revolved around the weak legal case for war. Ultimately, however, the legal wrangling has shown why those who worry about American power are right. Since the U.S. routinely violates international law, its insistence that a violation of norms around chemical weapons justifies the use of force sounds especially hollow.
Indeed, that Obama speaks of “norms” rather than “laws” suggests that he knows that his case, however morally strong on humanitarian grounds, is legally flimsy. Syria never ratified the international convention against chemical weapons. Before its post-9/11 crimes, by contrast, the U.S. ratified the Convention of Torture. That Obama can invoke sacred international norms when the U.S. violated much more clearly applicable law just a few years ago shows that U.S. concern for the rule of law is selective and based on power relations. And Obama has taken no steps to punish anyone for U.S. violations of international law in the post-Sept. 11 era. Thus, both law and norms seem to matter to the U.S. chiefly when it says so. Those concerned with legality should meditate on this disturbing fact. Only petty dictators, not American presidents, are subject to “red lines” and consequences when they are crossed. As for those who insist that humanitarian exigency trumps international law, it should not do so only when it suits great powers.
The third position, pragmatism, resists the ideological rigidity of the first two. It starts out from the insight that crafting the most effective policy, not law or power relations, is where the case for action needs to be made. As Alex de Waal and Bridget Conley-Zilkic of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, put it in an excellent reflection on the road to war, “The basic issue is efficacy, not legality.”
It may well be that the Obama administration, driven though it likely is by humanitarian passion even as it sounds the rallying cry of chemical violations, has a detailed strategy. According to little-noticed reporting by John Judis, the goal of military action is not only to discourage Assad from using weapons of mass destruction but also to prepare the conditions for Russia — Syria’s key ally — to force diplomatic negotiations and a peace settlement. The problem, of course, is how the means of isolated bombings is supposed to secure that end. If Obama has a plan, he is not saying what it is, and it is unclear whether a better option is available.
De Waal and Conley-Zilkic’s conclusion, therefore, that military action should be rejected on pragmatic grounds, remains the best reasoning. Absent a plausible plan to end the violence, and perhaps even to prepare a leadership succession without worsening the civil war, limited strikes against the regime are as likely (or more so) to makie the long-term outcomes worse as they are to improve them. America’s recent penchant to move to arms first and plan later is not reassuring, as Afghan and Iraqi history make plain.
Avoiding ideological fixations
The humanitarian fixation that the U.S. must finally act because of the latest outrage of using of chemical weapons on civilians should not be honored. Military action could make the humanitarian crisis worse, not better.
However, those obeying the humanitarian imperative are right that doing nothing is a shameful choice. But doing something to help the Syrian people need not mean war. The anti-imperialist position also deserves a greater hearing, because in the world as it is, no one can stop the U.S. from going to war.
If one current position makes the most short-term sense, however, pragmatism is clearly it. Pragmatism focuses on better immediate results for the long-suffering Syrian people. But there is also a long game. Better results would include not only succor for victims of the Syrian civil war, but the promise of a better world order. No solution will be plausible in the coming weeks and months that leaves the U.S. caught in its pattern of deciding on its own what the rules for the world are and when its power can trump them.