Whether or not to intervene in the Syrian civil war was a difficult decision two years ago. Today the difficulty has increased geometrically because of the administration’s foreign policy incompetence and vacillation. Of the many reasons advanced for doing so, the worst is the notion, articulated in the President’s address on August 31, that “international norms” against the use of chemical weapons enshrined in multinational treaties demand that the United States punish Bashar al-Assad in order to uphold those “laws” and deter him and other regimes possessing such weapons from using them again.
This argument fails on two levels. First, as Robert Bork wrote, “There can be no authentic rule of law among nations until they have a common political morality or are under a common sovereignty. A glance at the real world suggests we have a while to wait.” Indeed, there do not exist “international norms,” universal principles and morals supposedly codified in agreements like the Chemical Weapons Convention. What do exist are the interests–noble or ignoble, good or evil–of sovereign states codified in various treaties that are signed because a state believes doing so will further those interests. If a nation believes the treaty harms those interests, it either will not sign, just as Syria is not a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention, or simply violate the treaty when necessary, as North Korea did when it belonged to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And of course, any nation can leave the treaty whenever it wants.
This suggests “international norms” are always hostage to national interests. The United States has not signed onto the Ottawa Treaty, which bans landmines, or the Convention on Cluster Munitions. Syria may have declined to sign, like Egypt, because it had evil intentions, while the U.S. did not sign because its global responsibilities require its military to use those weapons in order to fulfill those responsibilities, and because it has a pluralistic government of law and accountability that eventually will act as a brake on violations of our principles and morals. In any case, this choosing among treaties to sign means that “international norms” will be trumped by each nation’s particular interests.
Furthermore, if a nation like Syria has not signed a treaty, by what rationale can it be punished for violating the terms of a treaty it did not sign? If some other treaty already proscribes such weapons (as did the 1925 Geneva Protocol against chemical weapons), why do we need the latest law? Or is there some higher morality above a signed treaty that binds all the world’s nations? “Common understandings of decency,” as Secretary of State Kerry said? And what are the origins of those “common understandings”? One will not find them in the historical record of human behavior, a “tableau of crimes and misfortunes,” as Voltaire said, or even in all the major world religions (regarding violence see Koran 9.25, 9.29, 5.38, 5.33, inter alia). They exist only as written in treaties and agreements.
And why are we so selective about which “international norms” we will enforce? Syria is a signatory state to all four Geneva Conventions and Protocol I. Articles 51 and 54 of Protocol I outlaws indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the use of biological weapons. So how come we didn’t use force to uphold Assad’s violation of indiscriminate attacks on civilians, which he has been engaged in from the beginning of the civil war? And even if, absent such treaties, “common understandings of decency” are so obvious, compelling, and so in need of upholding, why during the Iraq-Iran war did we not punish Saddam Hussein for killing 3-5 thousands of his own citizens and countless Iranians by using poison gas? Or why are signatories to the Chemical Weapons Convention like Russia and China resisting military action intended to uphold and honor the “norms” they presumably believe in? And does anybody believe Russia, China, or signatory state Iran will not use such weapons if circumstance convince them their security and interests compel them to? The murderous dictators of the 20th century left reams of violated treaties in their wake.
As for deterring future offenders, this argument relies on dubious psychology. Part of the Congressional authorization for the 2003 war against Hussein specified his use of chemical weapons as a reason to destroy his regime. Yet severely punishing that and Hussein’s numerous other violations of “international norms” hasn’t seemed to deter very many aggressors over the last few decades. One might argue that Libya’s Gadhafi is an exception, since he gave up his nuclear program after the Iraq invasion. But his subsequent fate suggests that his brother autocrats will calculate it’s better to hold on to their proscribed weapons as their own deterrent against a similar sordid end. Nor is a glorified fireworks show like shooting off 100 cruise-missiles likely to have deterrent power, especially when that action, when and if it comes, has been fenced in with limitations on time, assets, and aims, and telegraphed to Assad so he can minimize the damage. A sizable magnitude of destruction, including killing Assad and his circle, is what will be needed to concentrate wonderfully the minds of our enemies. And even then, they still might weigh the odds and roll the dice.
Finally, talk of punishing “crimes against humanity” is sentimental hypocrisy. Such crimes are as common flies, and pace the President we have “accepted a world in which women, children, and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.” In Iraq, for one. And change “gassed” to “bombed,” “fire-bombed,” “hacked to death,” “machine-gunned,” “tortured” and “starved,” and the toll soars into the tens of millions. And punishing perpetrators, as the U.S. did to Saddam Hussein in a controversial war, hasn’t seemed to deter other murderous regimes.
Taking military action against Syria may be the right thing. But if it is, it will be because doing so serves the national interests and security of the United States as determined by the people of the United States through their elected representatives, based on the principles of the American political order.