The West faces a crisis of legitimacy in international relations. Syria is the current location around which the surrounding dialectic is unfolding.
British retreat from intervention, triggered by David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons, casts new doubt on American military action. Yet the spectre of war still looms.
Indisputably, Syria should garner international attention and concern. It cannot be said with certainty that chemical weapons were deployed in the region, although their use seems more likely than not. But the source of such an attack certainly cannot currently be conclusively presumed. Yet, regardless of chemical weapons use, Syria is a humanitarian disaster. According to the UN, at least 93,000 people have died since the conflict’s inception in March 2011. Approximately 30,000 of those deaths occurred in the seven months between November 2012 and June 2013. That is a current death rate close to one half of what the United States experienced during World War II, in a significantly smaller area, by a population one-sixth of the size. Making it the world’s most deadly ongoing conflict.
But violent and unnecessary death is a systemic global problem, and is one not often met by international use of force. Syria is special because the Syrian government may have ‘crossed a line’. Their alleged use of chemical weapons directly violates international treaty, but also stated US demands. Syria did not do as told.
This may sound trite, but it is not. The US government faces a crisis of legitimacy over all future foreign policy directives if it is shown to be a ‘paper tiger’. But the catch-twenty-two of contemporary Syria is that the crisis of legitimacy cuts both ways.
Without UN sanction, made near impossible by Russian obstinacy, military action on the part of the US is tenuously grounded in international law. Without significant multi-lateral European and Middle Eastern support, action would fail to garner positive international sentiment. US Executive action without a Congressional vote would also lack US legal legitimacy, although would be supported by several decades of illegal precedent. Lastly, action lacks popular legitimacy. Although public support seems to be rising, according to an August 19-23 Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 9% of the American public supports military intervention.
Obama’s decision to hold a vote of Congressional approval may be the best possible political course of action. It will certainly garner critique from those on the Right demanding decisive and quick action. However, many of those same faces would chastise the Constitutional violation an Executive ordered assault would entail. Congressional involvement allows the administration to deflect any allegation of blame to the system as a whole.
But how should we hope Congress rules on this issue?
Morally, Syria is an outrage. Yet death by chemical attack is only death. Whether a chemical reaction propels a projectile through your body, or itself is the direct agent of doom, the end result is very similar.
However, upholding rules of war, although somewhat oxymoronic, is a noble and useful undertaking in our contemporary world replete with chronic low-level hostilities. So the question is how useful would any retaliation be in the case of Syria.
A major issue is that of consistency. The West has periodically engaged in, condoned and ignored chemical weapons use. During the Iran-Iraq War the United States provided Iraq with satellite intelligence for the expressed purpose of aiding the deployment of chemical weapons against Iran. Although the government denies its classification as a chemical weapon, the US used the chemical agent white phosphorous during the Second Iraq War in an offensive manner. The toxic chemical legacy of using depleted Uranium shells in Iraq has left an indelible mark on the genetics of Iraqis. Agent Orange was splattered across Vietnam by the American military during the 1960s and ’70s. Many Western states use Tear Gas against their own citizens even though it is banned as a chemical weapon in a military environment by the Geneva Protocol.
This issue of consistency plays out again in the specifics of this case. The current proposal to engage in a limited three day air campaign with no commitment to future punitive strikes against all chemical weapons users is a tactical action with no strategic goal. A punitive missile salvo would not prove a point nor would it cripple the Assad regime. We do not have an existing policy of bombing those who use chemical weapons. This is a bumbling gamble in a game with potentially disastrous consequences. These risks are made all the more volatile if UN approval is not acquired.
Obama should follow the same route internationally as he has taken domestically. Given this crisis poses no direct national threat, Obama should place the decision in the hands of the bureaucratic behemoth that technically possess the sole authority to take such action: the UN. Then rail against Russian and Chinese moral abhorrence for obstructing action. This may involve abdicating morality through leaving civilians to die at the hands of a tyrannical government, but we unfortunately lost the moral high ground years ago. The world does not want Team America World Police, so if action does not meet a specific national goal or continue a strategic foreign policy, why engage in unilateral hostilities? The crisis of legitimacy this unilateral action seeks to avoid already exists. The ad hoc manner in which we issue such punitive measures is apparent to anyone paying attention. They can only potentially further sully our reputation. The administration may wish to prevent America from being perceived as a paper tiger, but it is delusional to think the world views us as either consistent or motivated by principle, and we honestly do not need to re-prove our ability to blow things up.
New beginnings are possible and the creation of a new strategic initiative would be a moral and good idea. But the proposed actions do not fall into this category and simply invoke danger while creating little hope of achievable good.