On August 21, 2013, a chemical weapons attack killed 1,429 men, women and children on the outskirts of Damascus. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry attribute the horrifying attack to the Assad government. The Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 forbid the use of chemical weapons. The use of force to punish violators of the ban may be authorized by the UN Security Council. The United States is not unilaterally authorized under international law to do so.
President Obama continues to surprise me. Despite over a 100,000 casualties in Syria’s two-year plus civil war, he has wisely resisted direct involvement in a conflict that the U.S. has no obvious self-interest in. We have no real control over the unfolding events and outcome of the struggle underway there. Unfortunately, there is no plausible outcome that serves our interest in peace and democracy in the region much less in having a friendly regime. There is no obvious successor to Assad’s regime, though radical Islamism (al Qaeda) forces seem to currently dominate the anti-government forces. Edward Luttwak argues in a NY Times op-ed that a stalemate is the least bad of bad options. “In-Syria America Loses if Either Side Wins”
Obama then foolishly drew a red line against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. It now seems very likely that Assad has crossed it in a big way. If the U.S. does not act decisively it will lose credibility and its red lines will become meaningless. If it acts, as Obama has suggested, in a limited, “surgical” manner that does not tip the balance of Syria’s civil war, will it have “taught” Assad a lesson that will detour him from using chemical weapons in the future? More likely it will affirm U.S. powerlessness in the area. And what about the inevitable collateral damage even if our rockets hit their intended targets and Syria’s unpredictable countermeasures? In a statement released September 1, the International Crisis Group stated that: “To precisely gauge in advance the impact of a U.S. military attack, regardless of its scope and of efforts to carefully calibrate it, by definition is a fool’s errand…. Consequences almost certainly will be unpredictable.” “Syria Statement”
In a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that: “As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that use of force will move us toward the intended outcome. Once we take action, we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid.” More recently he added that: “Simply the application of force rarely produces and, in fact, maybe never produce the outcome we seek.” According to Daniel Byman of Brookings Institute “A limited bombing campaign against Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure is likely to produce the worst of all worlds: raising expectations and further involving the United States in the Syrian civil war without significantly altering the balance of forces on the ground.” “Syria Crisis-Military Action”
Syria’s use of chemical weapons without consequences could render their prohibition toothless. However, not only is the US not legally authorized to police world agreements, it can’t afford to go into another war and still remain economically and militarily strong. Given Russian and Chinese opposition, the UN Security Council will not authorize the use of force. A U.S. attack on Syria would violate international law every bit as much as Syria’s apparent use of chemical weapons has. That does not mean that nothing can be done within the framework of the law in reaction to the use of chemical weapons. If we continue to disregard international law, why would we expect others to abide by it? Globalization, which has dramatically reduced poverty around the world, would suffer. We would be left to police the world by military force (and how has that been working for us?) until we burned ourselves out.
In his rose garden address to the nation Saturday the President said that: “I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets…. And I’m prepared to give that order.” His surprise, however, was his promise to seek Congress’s authorization, something he had not considered necessary for Libya. “But having made my decision as Commander-in-Chief based on what I am convinced is our national security interests,… I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.” Regrettably he did not seem to seek this authorization as a legal requirement of the constitution but rather as a pragmatic way to build public support. What ever his reason the step is welcomed.
Harvard Law Professor Jack Goldsmith reviewed the legal arguments over the President’s war powers in a recent New York Times article: “What Happened to the Rule of Law?” The Obama administration has pushed Presidential authority further than any previous administration. A return to the rule of law, domestically and internationally, is America’s best chance of survival in a dramatically changing world.
Congress should say no to Obama’s request for an illegal and unpromising attack on Syria. But we can thank him for asking.