President Obama Saturday laid out the case for a military strike on Syria. He evoked the same rationales Secretary of State Kerry and others, including some conservatives, have been articulating for the last week. We’ve heard of “international norms,” “common understandings of decency,” the “international community” that codified a “normal prohibition against chemical weapons” in the Chemical Weapons Convention, the need to act to deter other rogue states like Iran, and the imperative to punish “crimes against humanity.”
Almost as an afterthought, the necessity of putting teeth into America’s credibility and prestige in order to defend our interests was mentioned by the President. And he vaguely asserted that the gas attack was a “serious danger to our national security,” though it’s hard to see how “making a mockery of the global prohibitions on chemical weapons” endangers our security. Terrorists and their state enablers like Iran and North Korea don’t abide by such “prohibitions.” But that fuzzy national security argument was swamped by the waves of delusional internationalism and dubious psychologizing about the motives and calculations of ruthless dictators and autocrats. The fact is, the only reason to use American military power and risk American lives is to advance our interests and defend our security. Evoking some fantasy “international community” complicates and confuses that critical criterion.
Start with the chimera of “international norms” and “common understandings of decency.” Such statements imply a universal moral standard shared by all peoples, one which international agreements and institutions codify. The proscription of torture, the protection of non-combatants, the humane treatment of the wounded and prisoners of war, and the ban against using certain kinds of weapons are the sort of presumably universal beliefs that are enshrined in international law.
But where is the evidence that such norms exist in fact rather than in language? Certainly not on the pages of history or your daily newspaper, which are filled with serial violations of such norms, including by signatories to these various conventions and agreements. What can be found is the eternal truth that nations pursue their interests by whatever means they can, and different peoples have different attitudes towards the legitimacy of violence and its acceptable victims, particularly in Muslim Arab lands. Thus nations sign treaties and join transnational institutions because they think doing so will serve their interests, not because they share some “international norm.” Their participation is based not so much on shared values, as on treaties signed because of perceived utility.
Take the Chemical Weapons Convention. The vast majority of nations that signed that treaty did so because it cost them nothing. They did not have such weapons, had no intention of acquiring them, or did not have the money or expertise to acquire them. What difference does it make if Belgium or Burkina Faso signs such a document? Other nations with significant militaries and global responsibilities, like the United States, could afford to honor principle and eschew such weapons because they have plenty of alternative weapons equally or more effective. Then there is the handful of nations that didn’t sign––including Syria.
This raises the main problem with such conventions. They are agreements signed by sovereign nations. Being a sovereign nation means choosing which treaties to sign and which to ignore, which to honor and which to violate. Take the Ottawa Treaty, which bans the use of land mines. Almost as many nations have signed that treaty as signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. Landmines have killed and maimed many thousands more people than have chemical weapons. But the United States did not sign the treaty, or the Convention on Cluster Munitions, because our leaders have judged that given our global responsibilities and interests, landmines and cluster munitions are a critical military resource.
So how consistent or compelling can be the “international norms” that presumably create these various agreements, if some nations don’t sign them? And if the convention is a treaty signed by sovereign nations, how can a nation that does not sign be held accountable for violating its provisions? Either we invent “common understandings of decency” that override the treaty––an obvious pretext for perfuming with principle the calculated pursuit of our own interests–– or we openly punish the non-signatory nation because it serves our interests and security to do so.
And then there are the nations that sign with the full intention of violating the terms of the convention if necessary. Does anyone think that signatory nations like Russia, China, and Iran won’t use these weapons if they think they need to? Let’s not forget that the 3 axis powers of World War II, Germany, Italy, and Japan, were members of the League of Nations and signatories of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand pact that bound the parties to “condemn recourse to war for the solution of international controversies, and renounce it, as an instrument of national policy.” How did that work out?
As for Syria’s use of chemical weapons, if there is some “international norm,” why are signatories to the CWC Russia and China blocking a Security Council resolution to punish the violators of “norms” Russia and China presumably endorse? We know the answer. It’s not in their national interests to do so, just as it wasn’t in France’s national interests in 2002 to endorse punishing a much more egregious violator of “international norms,” Saddam Hussein.
Hussein brings us to the other spurious rationale for acting against Syria: that doing so will serve as a deterrent to other nations (read Iran) contemplating the development or use of proscribed weapons. In March 1988, towards the end of the Iraq-Iran war Hussein poisoned between 3,500 and 5,000 Kurds, injuring many thousands more. Does anyone remember any sort of international outcry and calls for action similar to those that we are hearing now, or when he used chemical weapons against the Iranians? Indeed, the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office officially stated, “We believe it better to maintain a dialogue with others if we want to influence their actions. Punitive measures such as unilateral sanctions would not be effective in changing Iraq’s behaviour over chemical weapons, and would damage British interests to no avail.” Did the British take that attitude because the Chemical Weapons Convention hadn’t been signed yet? But surely the “norms” that lead to the convention were already in existence.
In fact, when in 2003 Congress authorized the Iraq War, the resolution twice referenced Hussein’s chemical attacks on his own people as a basis for invading. So punishing a regime that had violated “international norms” concerning chemical weapons was one of the reasons the U.S. destroyed Hussein’s regime and executed Hussein. But at the time, the need to punish violators of “international norms” and send a deterrent message to future violators was ignored by those protesting the war, including our current President. The French, now so noisily encouraging the U.S. to take action, vigorously opposed a U.N. resolution authorizing the war––the same U.N. Obama is now not even trying to get on board. So where then were all the imperatives to punish and deter violators of “international norms” we keep hearing today?
And if destroying Hussein’s regime and killing him and his sons has not deterred Bashar al Assad from using chemical weapons, what makes us think anything short of destroying his regime and killing him will do so? He’s more likely to remember the fate of Libya’s Ghaddafi, who gave up his nuclear program and ended up sodomized with an iron rod then shot down in the street. Nor is it likely that any future violator like Iran is going to stop its criminal behavior even if Bashar al Assad does end up dead. The Iranians will weigh the risks and benefits, calculate our levels of resolve, and trust in Allah. At this late stage, even killing Assad is unlikely to alter the mullahs’ estimation of our lack of nerve, hypocrisy, and propensity for empty bluster.
Finally, all this rhetoric about “crimes against humanity” and the “responsibility to protect” reeks of hypocrisy and moral preening. The President said, “We cannot accept a world where women and children and innocent civilians are gassed on a terrible scale.” Who’s he kidding? We already have, in Hussein’s Iraq. Change “gassed” to “bombed,” “fire-bombed,” “hacked to death,” “machine-gunned,” and “starved” and you can cover the globe with the victims whose deaths on a “terrible scale” we have “accepted.” We have stood by and watched millions of women, children, and innocent civilians murdered in all sorts of ways equally as, or more gruesome and painful than, dying by poison gas.
In Rwanda anywhere from 500,000 to 1,000,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered in 1994, many by being hacked to death with machetes, not to mention the women raped, purposely infected with HIV, and sexually mutilated. We did nothing to stop the killing not because we militarily couldn’t, but because it was not in our national interests and security to do so. Hence we sent in a toothless U.N. to salve our consciences and deflect the charge of callous inactivity.
So all those calling for intervention in Syria or anywhere else to prevent “crimes against humanity” should be required to explain just how this unfortunately common slaughter is different from all those others we did not intervene to stop. The fact is, given that we cannot expend our citizens’ lives to protect all the millions of global victims of violence, we must make the decision based not on “international norms” but on the national interests and security of the United States, as these are determined by the citizens of the United States through their elected representatives. In the event, frequently pursuing those interests will end up punishing egregious violators like Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. But the definitive criterion must be how the action concretely protects our citizens and our interests.
Specifically answering that question––not appealing to delusional “international norms,” or assertions of deterring future malefactors on behalf of some imagined “global community”––should be the focus of the upcoming Congressional debate.
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