When a country violates an international norm, as Syria did, the political will of the international community determines the nature of a response and the outcome of a dispute. This is particularly true of the permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council. That is in addition to the internal politics within those countries, including the United States.
Sarah Jones wrote several excellent posts addressing the primary questions of whether we should take action, if we should do it alone and whether the President can act without support from congress. She also sorted through the various fallacies such as efforts to compare President Obama and the situation in Syria with former President Bush and the situation in Iraq. I applaud her for doing so.
Aside from considering our domestic interests, our response to Syria has global implications. The Obama Administration went its own way on Syria, combining diplomatic efforts with punitive airstrikes.
As Jason Easley reported, some diplomatic progress has occurred. It’s likely that the threat of force combined with Secretary Kerry’s comment that strikes may be avoided if Syria fulfills certain conditions played an important role in this achievement. In fact, Kerry’s comments were not as “off the cuff” as earlier reports suggest. President Obama and Putin discussed the weapons handover during the G-20 summit last week.
Early Tuesday, Syria accepted a Russian proposal to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community.
France is also on the verge of introducing a resolution calling on Syria to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community. Reports say the resolution warns of serious consequences should Syria fail to meet this requirement. So far President’s approach of combining of diplomacy backed up with his willingness to use of proportionate and responsible force is working.
All of this occurred within the 24 hours since Secretary Kerry said the one way that Syria could avoid punitive strikes was if it surrender its chemical weapons. So far, diplomacy Obama style is working. Of course, it’s possible that that Syria agreed to the proposal as a stalling tactic, or Syria might not comply with the conditions.
If President Obama followed the desires of the do nothing critics, these developments probably wouldn’t have occured. He would send a message to rogue states and non-governmental rogue actors that they can violate international norms with impunity. It would also be saying to our friends in the international community that they are on their own.
If he followed the do anything but force crowd, this is a case in which diplomatic efforts without force, if necessary, would not be taken seriously. The agreement came because Syria wanted to avoid punitive strikes by the U.S. and its allies.
Another set of critics advocate the opposite extreme of the do nothing crowd – regime change, which would entail a more extensive use of force than punitive strikes would entail. Never mind, that Obama’s approach is heading in the direction of diplomatic success in a potential crisis without resorting to the extreme of going to war.
Some critics of the U.S.’s possible use of punitive strikes against Syria point to the U.S.’s lack of moral authority because of its inconsistent record with regard to violations of prohibitions against chemical weapons. Okay, the fact is we violated international norm with Bush’s torture policy being one shining example and we looked the other way when our friends did the same. One example is Israel’s continued expansion of settlements. Suggestions that we do nothing based on these facts indulge in the fallacy that two wrongs make a right. How does turning a blind eye to Syria rectify the settlement problem in Israel? How does allowing Assad to get away with gassing his own citizens, including sleeping children, compensate for Bush’s torture policy?
As a general truism, countries either deny or spin their own violations of international legal norms and those of their friends while insisting on enforcement when it comes to their enemies. When taken to its logical conclusion arguments suggesting that doing nothing is the way to rectify this disparity, only results in reinforcing it.
Moreover, the “political will” of organizations like the United Nations is just as selective, but then they were structured to be so. The United Nations Security Council has five permanent members: The U.S. China, Russia, Great Britain and France. Those members have a double veto over every resolution presented to the Council. That means they can veto discussion of a proposed resolution on procedural grounds and they also have the power to veto resolutions on substantive grounds. The composition of the Security Council is of states with competing and opposing interests. The downside is it takes time for the UNSC to fashion a response to violations of international norms that fall within its scope. The upside is the constant tension between competing interests prevents absolute and unaccountable domination by any state. Certainly, we can find flaws with the structure and outdated composition of the United Nations Security Council.
This structure also precludes the possibility of any country, including the United States, from meeting the a purist’s standard of moral authority to enforce any international norm. As is the case when achieving consensus among any set of competing interests, it means those involved compromise and negotiate until they can agree on something. The record shows the glaring inconsistencies of the permanent five in their desire to enforce international norms, particularly human rights and international humanitarian law. The pattern is one in which the P5 as a collective entity reflects the behaviors and interests of its individual member states. At best, the severity of a violation can persuade a reluctant P5 member to support action against a traditional friend. More likely, P5 members will abstain from voting on resolutions that affect their friends, but P5 members who are friendly with the offending country will simultaneously use their influence to realize a political solution.
The ugly truth is that none of the countries that are in a position to lead an international response to Syria (or any other country for that matter) fit the purist definition of moral authority. However, there are countries and leaders who are in a better position to assert moral authority than others. In reality, the purist moral authority argument amounts to saying international law shouldn’t be enforced, which isn’t too far away from saying international law shouldn’t exist at all.
We live in an imperfect world in which international law’s enforcement depends on the national interests of the permanent 5 security council members, the national and international security implications of the offending act and the offending country’s relations and value to the P5 countries. Diplomatic relations include a variety of measures including use of military options ranging from punitive strikes to humanitarian intervention, when warranted, in the name of achieving the eventual political solution.
Fortunately, President Obama wasn’t deterred by fear of the varied and contradictory criticisms ranging from being called a hypocritical war monger to the crazy conspiracy theories offered by Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and others whose oppose involvement in Syria in the name of saying no to anything the President proposes.
Image: Justice in Conflict