Ian Boyne, Contributor
The Syrian crisis proves that being the world's sole superpower and having the mightiest military, naval power and economy in the world does not mean you can do whatever you want. President Barack Obama is the most powerful man in the world, but he is sure not feeling that way today.
He is in a conundrum. Outraged by the Syrian regime's brazen use of chemical weapons on the very anniversary of his drawing a red line on that issue, Obama seemed determined to launch a military strike, then he suddenly pulled back and said he would put it to Congress.
Britain, through its Parliament, had abandoned him. Poll after poll show that the American people are not lining up behind him for another war in the Middle East. The Arab League is not dancing in tune to his drum roll for war, and Russia and China won't give him a pass at the United Nations (UN) Security Council. And he knows it would be hard to get congressional support. Only France is stoutly standing by his side.
And he is now in a position of having to reach out to former Cold War combatant and present irritant Russia for the only diplomatic initiative on offer. It's not an enviable position for the head of what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called 'The Indispensable Nation'. Mr Obama also faces other dilemmas, not the least of which are issues concerning international law. Military action is only legal if a nation is directly threatened or if that nation obtains United Nations approval for military action.
Assad has done nothing to directly threaten the United States (US) and there is no indication he intends to use his chemical weapons against the US. As the aptly titled commentary put out by the Centre for a New American Century, 'International Law Constrains US Action in Syria', says: "The United Nations Charter reflects ... two principles ... - action taken pursuant to a UN Security Council resolution and individual or collective self-defence" is the only justification for military action against another state.
Says the piece: "As the US weighs action against the brutal Syrian regime, it must decide whether to abide by these laws or abandon them in pursuit of some greater good to be gained through an arguably unlawful intervention in Syria." There is no ambiguity on this matter as far as international law is concerned. The most one can say is what the UN said with regard to the US action in Kosovo to stop the slaughter there: It was an "unlawful but legitimate" intervention.
And remember that this US president, in striking contrast to George W. Bush, is known for his advocacy of international law, multilateralism and liberal internationalism. He has stood firmly against unilateralism and American exceptionalism in its vulgar manifestation. Now with this proposed war of choice in Syria, he would be retreating on that. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in that New York Times op-ed piece which earned the ire of congressmen, was well reasoned and forceful in part.
Certainly, when he wrote: "The world reacts by asking: If you cannot count on international law, then you must find other ways to ensure your security. Thus, a growing number of countries seek to acquire weapons of mass destruction. This is logical: If you have the bomb, no one will touch you. We are left with talk of the need to strengthen non-proliferation, when in reality this is being eroded", this was a swipe at President Obama at several levels, including his now powerful advocacy of non-proliferation.
But Putin is making the potent point that if you scorn international law - even for an understandable and reasonable response to the atrocities of an Assad regime - then is this not an invitation to international anarchy and a return to the Hobbesian past? As Putin said in that New York Times article, "The United Nations founders understood that decisions affecting war and peace should happen only by consensus, and with America's consent, the veto by Security Council permanent members was enshrined in the United Nations Charter. The profound wisdom of this has underpinned the stability of international relations for decades ... .
"No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorisation."
There was a well-argued op-ed piece in The New York Times on September 3 by Donna Hathaway and Scott Shapiro titled 'On Syria, a UN Vote Isn't Optional'. It makes the case convincingly for international, not unilateral, authorisation for any action in Syria. "Consider the world that preceded the United Nations. The basic rule of that system, one that lasted for centuries, was that states had just cause when legal rights had been violated. Spain tried to justify its conquest of the Americas by saying it was protecting indigenous civilians from atrocities committed by other indigenous peoples.
"The United States largely justified the Mexican-American War, including the conquest of California and much of what is now the southeast, by pointing to Mexico's failure to pay old tort claims and outstanding debts. The problem with the old system was not that it could not enforce the law, but that too many who wished to do so could. The result was almost constant war."
We can't go back to that, no matter how emotionally gutted we are over atrocities committed.
NO LEGS TO STAND ON
I accept fully the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine and the right to humanitarian intervention in states in cases of genocides, atrocities and humanitarian disasters, generally. I don't believe that states should have an untrammeled right to slaughter their citizens-members of the human family with inalienable human rights.
But the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine mandates multilateral action, not unilateral decisions. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has rejected the view that humanitarian disasters justify states intervening without Security Council authorisation.
In 2009, he said, "The responsibility to protect does not alter, indeed it reinforces, the legal obligations to member states to refrain from the use of force except in conformity with the charter," and he just recently reaffirmed that view on the Syria question. Obama, therefore, has no legs to stand on with his call for military action outside of UN authorisation. Not even a vote from Congress authorises him - and even that is in doubt.
His major argument has been that the international community cannot allow Assad to get away with using chemical weapons, banned over a hundred years ago, without any sanctions. But the respected Foreign Policy website published an article last month drawing on now declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) files which showed that the United States continued support for Iraq in its war with Iran even when it used chemical weapons - and that it knew of this use early.
"According to recently declassified CIA documents and interviews with former intelligence officers, the US had firm evidence of Iraqi chemical attacks beginning in 1983. At the time, Iran was publicly alleging that illegal chemical attacks were being carried out on its forces ... . But it lacked evidence implicating Iraq. US officials have long denied acquiescing to Iraqi chemical attacks ... . But retired Air Force Col Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad during the 1988 strikes, paints a different picture," says Foreign Policy.
Obama's speech on Tuesday night was not compelling. Its major argument for intervention was not for humanitarian reasons. It was that Assad had broken international law and should be punished. But you can't punish him by breaking international law! That's contradictory. He admitted, "We cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force," yet if the military strike takes out Assad's chemical weapons, but leaves the conventional weapons to slaughter even more people, how does that help? Remember, more than 100,000 have already been butchered by Assad and there have been two million refugees and massive internal displacement.
That humanitarian crisis and slaughter is not going to stop without a full military assault, not just by removing chemical weapons. In other words, exploiting emotions about children dying horribly from chemical weapons and helpless dads begging dead children to get up ignores the brutal fact that far more children are dying in sight of helpless fathers through conventional means. You are either committed to getting rid of Assad or not.
But that's not so simple either. For among Assad's enemies are dreaded al-Qaida fighters, jihadists and fanatical Islamists. Assad's successors are not likely to be democrats. Christians and other minorities there fear genocide if the Syrian rebels win. Obama is between the devil and the deep, deep, deep blue sea.
Obama said on Tuesday: "Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver." Yet he said, "I don't think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for what comes next."NOT A DETERRENT
Dictators don't fear strikes that leave them in power. Those strikes would only consolidate their forces, and in Syria's case, perhaps anger others in the Arab world. You either take out the man full-blown or stay out. A limited strike just for chemical weapons achieves almost nothing. Remember, dictators don't care about their people. They will willingly sacrifice hundreds of thousands of civilians, including children, once they remain in power. They are not deterred by limited strikes not aimed at regime change.
The Obama speech was a bundle of contradictions, trying as his trademark, to please everybody and to be the paramount Consensual Leader. "And several people wrote to me, we should not be the world's policemen. I agree." But then he went on to make the case for being the world's policeman when everyone but France says don't strike! He talked about acting because his cause is just, but does that not commit future presidents to act everywhere where there is injustice or terror?
Obama must be commended for taking his case to the American people, for putting the vote to Congress, and for seriously considering the Russian proposal. Obama doesn't really have a unilateralist heart. And he is genuinely trying to avoid war. But he is caught in one unholy mess.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.