Do Humanitarian Concerns Give the U.S. A Right to Bomb Syria?

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Nancy Pelosi suggests that the U.S. should bomb Syria to save children. Does the U.S. have a right to defend children in Syria by bombing government installations?

A right to defend others at their request can be legitimate, if aggressors have been accurately identified and other conditions are fulfilled. Suppose Poland in September of 1939 had requested that the U.S. help defend its people from the Nazi invasion. The U.S. could have lawfully agreed to defend Poland if Congress could have legitimately declared war on Germany. This condition was not in place, however. The U.S. had no defense treaty with Poland and there was no threat of a Nazi attack on America. In the Syrian case, similarly, the U.S. has no pact or legal basis at this time that provides a legal basis for a U.S. defense of children or adult non-combatants in Syria by attacking Syrian installations. Such a basis might happen if the UN passed a resolution allowing such action, but that hasn’t happened.

Even if some international lawyers devised some new sort of argument in support of U.S. bombing by basing it on some humanitarian rationale, the U.S. would still have a very difficult case to make. The U.S. has basically forfeited even such an imagined or hypothetical right by its earlier actions of supporting the rebel side. If it bombs Syria now, it is part of a pattern of having chosen the rebel side.

The U.S. support of the rebels has in some measure intensified and extended a war that has produced a very large number of refugees and civilian deaths. Some rebels have again and again been implicated in a variety of war crimes. These include slaughtering prisoners, killing non-combatants (often by cruel means), and impressing children as soldiers. These additional facts make Pelosi’s current humanitarian argument for bombing Syria hollow indeed, especially at a juncture where the rebels have had serious setbacks.

The U.S. sanctions against Iraq that killed 500,000 children and the U.S. support of Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran additionally undermine any argument that humanitarianism is now a basis for bombing Syria.

3:42 pm on September 4, 2013