So now that President Obama has publicly stated that he thinks that the US ought to engage in military action against Syria on account of its use of chemical weapons, everyone and their cousin has offered up their view on whether the proposed action is just/unjust, prudent/imprudent, etc. So here’s one more (on the theory that the internet just can’t have enough commentary on the subject of the day).
Except that I’ve been thinking about this a bit differently than others. (It’s quite possible that someone else has offered this same sort of argument, but I haven’t seen it). If we take President Obama at his word (and we should), he thinks that the US (and the “international community”) is justified in striking at Syrian military targets because doing so will uphold the widely recognized norm against the use of chemical weapons (a norm that Syria is an official party to via its endorsement of the Geneva Accords). It’s often a kind of drive-by cheap shot to say that the US shouldn’t do “X” because it’s “not the world’s policeman,” but here it seems as though that’s exactly what the president is proposing we must be. It’s quite clear that the president doesn’t mean to overthrow the Assad regime or kill Assad himself, but instead merely wants to (a) degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities and “send a message.”
Is that enough to justify military action? I’m not entirely sure, but if that’s really all that’s going on, I’m doubtful. I’m doubtful because it seems as though it puts the US in a paradoxical position. We aren’t planning to do enough to quite qualify as a genuine military attack (since we haven’t said that we’ll be attacking in order to make sure that the Assad regime *can’t* use chemical weapons again). And while there’s a strong case to be made that Syria has violated its own commitments to international law (as dubious as I am about international law’s effectiveness), attacking a country on account of such violations does not seem to me to be an exercise of “law.” President Obama and his allies made a lot of claims over the last ten years or so that the US was too quick to resort to military force and that we could, if we would only pursue it properly, work to resolve conflicts under color of law as opposed to force. (This was the essential claim behind that the way to fight the war on terror was via “intelligence and police work” as opposed to military action). If it is international law that you are upholding, then to act unlawfully (and acting here without UN Security Council approval seems unlawful, at least by the standards the president himself has elaborated prior to this) and with military force hardly seems appropriate. On the other hand, if what you’re interested in doing is ensuring that the “norm” against chemical weapons is upheld, then perhaps military action is justified, so long as you’re actually going after the weapons, delivery systems, command-and-control systems, and leadership.
I suppose that it’s possible for one to see in the president’s view a Hobbesian sort of claim about international law, that it ultimately depends on force–doesn’t just always involve force but depends on it–and in that sense the military action could uphold a certain understanding of international law. But I don’t think that’s the understanding that the president has and it certainly isn’t the one that he’s talked about before. This policy is neither here nor there, and thus ends up nowhere, at least as regards its justice.