My colleagues, Laurence Vance and Walter Block, have given us further cogent reasons why neutrality toward Syria is the right policy. Meanwhile, the president has shifted the ball to Congress. In doing so, he elaborated his arguments further.
Since the bombing issue is still alive and yet to be decided, let’s examine what the president is now saying, or at least make a beginning of understanding his thought.
He says that he’s comfortable ignoring the U.N. and the Security Council: “I’m comfortable going forward without the approval of a United Nations Security Council that, so far, has been completely paralyzed and unwilling to hold Assad accountable.” This is an extraordinary statement on a par with Bush’s statement that the Constitution is a piece of paper. Here Obama declares that the U.S. membership in the UN and solemn agreement to its Charter is irrelevant. He does not intend to abide by the agreement and thus international law.
What messages does this declaration send? The main one is that any and all members of the U.N. need not abide by the Charter, in an undetermined range of situations in which they decide they wish to hold another state or person accountable to their ideas of justice. A state has a right to break a treaty under certain conditions. Obama is saying he’ll break or adhere to a compact on a selective basis as he pleases. Next week, he might support a UN action and the following week not.
In this same speech, Obama says “We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign,…” He doesn’t seem to realize that his statement about going it alone regardless of the U.N. smashes that accord that the U.S. signed.
Obama asks “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?” The “we” here is not any international community, as we have just seen. It refers to the U.S. government. The U.S. government usually has done nothing when other states have mistreated their citizens or those beyond its borders, just as others usually have done nothing when the U.S. government has mistreated its citizens or those beyond its borders. Doing nothing is the standard and most frequent response to perceived injustices in other countries. The U.S. just got done doing nothing about a rash of killing in Egypt. Doing nothing when other states are led by dictators and they misbehave is also extremely common. The bottom line is that absolutely no unusual message will be sent if the U.S. doesn’t intervene in Syria. This is actually the default option. States do bad things continually. All have unclean hands. If they decided to intervene in other countries as Obama proposes to do in Syria, they would simply ratchet up the frequency of hostilities and wars. They would incur high costs for no gains, because they would have changed nothing basic.
Non-interference prevents an injustice localized in one country from expanding into a blood feud between that country and another one that decides to intervene. Obama doesn’t see this at all. He says “our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.” Yes, the U.S. hits Syria. That’s limited in duration and scope. That’s this week. What happens the day after, the week after, in years to come? When the other side responds, then the U.S. is forced to respond. The blood feud gets going and won’t stop. By intervening, the U.S. loses its independence. It is held hostage to the responses of those on the receiving end or to their allies or to other interested parties.
Obama says if nothing is done “It risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” This is not true, because Syria never agreed to be bound by the Chemical Weapons Convention. Those states that have agreed and signed are not going to rush out and build chemical weapons because of Syria’s activity. Compare the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. This hasn’t even gone into force, but when India, Pakistan and North Korea, all non-signers, conducted nuclear tests after the 1996 date when the treaty became open for signatures, there was no rush by those who had already signed to abandon their compliance. This is a close analogy to the chemical weapons situation, and it suggests that Obama’s claim is false. It’s hype.
Obama makes the following slippery slope argument:
“If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules? To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms? To terrorist who would spread biological weapons? To armies who carry out genocide?”
The answer is that it says nothing. The credibility of the U.S. government to act or not act on these situations does not depend on holding Syria’s feet to the fire over chemical weapons. However, Obama’s credibility is at stake because he foolishly drew a red line a year ago.
Obama has implicit in these remarks what I will call the Obama Doctrine. He’s basically saying that it shall be the policy of the U.S. government (apparently unilaterally) to rule the world, at least insofar as providing it with enforcement in instances of flouting international rules, building nuclear arms, terrorism by biological means and genocide. This vision is even broader than the war on terror. He’s saying that if the U.S. does not do this, its “resolve” is called into question. Nonsense. The U.S. faces all sorts of constraints and barriers that limit its freedom of action. The resolve can be sky high but if the costs of implementing that resolve are too high, the U.S. desists. Obama speaks like all liberals, disregarding the costs of the infinite number of aims he thinks worthy. It is costs that limit government action, not resolve.
There is more that can be said about Obama’s latest remarks. Basically he imagines that the U.S. government made a commitment to prevent the use of chemical weapons in Syria and that its credibility is at stake if it doesn’t follow through. Actually, the commitment was not sharp and it changed over time. It was not a well-defined policy statement. Furthermore, if Obama has to go to Congress to gain approval for bombing, then by what authority did he make his red line statements in the first place? What acts of Congress or laws was he implementing? It’s not at all clear that he committed the U.S. government to anything, or at least nothing with the force of law. That being the case, the credibility of the U.S. is not at stake either. Credibility is a bogus issue anyway, because he’s flouting the U.N., he’s droning where he pleases, he avoids some situations, and he embraces others as he pleases.6:34 pm on August 31, 2013