The Case Against

It seems that the official presumption in Washington is that on almost any question of foreign policy the country ought to defer to the President, and that the President ought to defer to those urging rapid and military response, rather than anything slow (coalition building) or non-military (diplomacy). Pundits can never go wrong when they follow this principle.

This presumption is so ingrained that when the President this weekend decided to permit Congress to give its advice and consent to punitive military action against Syria (a course he said he concluded was in the country’s best interest), even a normally level-headed (though not particularly liberal) pundit like Fred Kaplan characterized the move as “risky.” The “risk” of course is that a military strike against Syria might somehow be thwarted by the political process.

Of course, the next time that Congress votes against war when the Executive has asked for it will be the first. But that’s not the point. The point is that the policy goal (war) is first presumed and the political process is seen as the obstacle. It is hard to believe that any of the leading politicians of the Founder’s generation (with the possible exception of Alexander Hamilton) would view the role of Congress as any other than legitimate. More than legitimate: they believed that it was the role of Congress, not the Executive, to determine when the country would engage in war. All of the revolutionary Founders came from a British whig tradition which saw an unchecked Executive as the main cause of destructive military engagements.

But here we are, in a time when all American politicians are Tories. Even so, it seems to me that the “risk” (if you want to engage in that kind of analysis) was in the President’s extending his prestige beyond prudence: first by using the inflammatory “red line” rhetoric and then in essentially committing the country to war before attempting to hedge his bets by bringing Congress into the decision.

Pundits are now all aflutter about the politics of Congress. But pundits have no interest in policy; they rely on receive wisdom, which in this case is that war is always best.

So let’s review some of the considerations that won’t be part of the decision. These all show why the President’s argument is flatly wrong.

1. U.S. military action is not sanctioned by international law. Assume if you wish that the Syrian government used sarin against its own citizens. This action may violate international law (although Syria is not a signatory to the treaties making use of sarin illegal).  Let’s assume that it does. How does that conclusion justify unilateral U.S. (or American plus a select few allies) military action?

Ban Ki-moon states that the Security Council of the United Nations is the only legitimate forum to take punitive action for violation of international law:

“As I have repeatedly said, the Security Council has primary responsibility for international peace and security,” Ban said at a news conference. “The use of force is lawful only when in exercise of self-defense in accordance with article 51 of the United Nations Charter and or when the Security Council approves such action.

The President does not expressly deny this. Rather he argues that the U.N. is hopelessly deadlocked inasmuch as Russia and China will block any Security Council resolution providing for a punitive strike and that allowing a brazen violation of prohibitions against the use of chemical weapons is a threat to our security.

The second argument is clearly make-weight. That the government used the weapons on its own citizens has nothing to do with our own security. We are equally secure or insecure whether Syria used the weapons internally or not. If we feared that the weapons could fall into the hands of persons who might use them against us, it is the existence of the weapons, not their use in this case not involving us, that is the cause of insecurity. And surely even the President does not believe that we are authorized to attack a country solely because it possesses these weapons. If so, we have waited a long time before discovering this cause for war.

As for the first argument, the response is simply that there is no legitimate or legal justification for subverting accepted procedure simply because the outcome is not to the liking of one of the parties. Any action other than accepting the decision of the constituted authority on a matter rightly within its jurisdiction is nothing but vigilantism. When George Governor John M. Slaton commuted the death sentence of convicted murderer Leo Frank to life imprisonment back in 1915, the citizens of Marietta, Georgia felt that the lawful authorities had blocked what they considered the correct punishment. So they broke into the jail, dragged Frank from prison and hanged him, then assaulted the corpse. We now consider that mob action unlawful and barbaric. Compounding the uncivilized conduct is the fact that he now appears almost certainly to have been innocent.

But the United States government is not a mob, respectable pundits would argue. Of course, every time “official Washington” (that is, the National Security apparatus of a particular Administration in combination with the national press corp that covers the Administration, essentially by relaying the Administration’s official positions or authorized leaks) it is difficult to distinguish between their mental process and that of an actual mob. And like an actual mob the conclusion is always the same: violent force is required and someone, perhaps many, must die.

It is with particular ill grace that the leader of the American military argues just now that only the American military, and not some international tribunal or court, is best able to deliver disinterested international justice. That same military recently tried two soldiers, one of which committed mass murder of American servicemen (although he tried to avoid killing civilians) and the other committed mass murder of innocent civilians in a foreign country (he was not looking for combatants). Guess which one received the capital sentence? This suggests that the military—as an institution—finds the killing of its own soldiers more heinous than the killing of those the military was employed to protect. But of course that conclusion is obvious. That is why we prefer drone attacks to troops. Although drones are likely to kill more civilians (“collateral damage” as the military likes to sanitize it), it saves our soldiers. This profound bias shows why we are not equipped without the input and consent of other nations with stakes in the outcome to decide when force is necessary to enforce international norms or what kind of force ought to be employed.

The case of Sergeant Robert Bales, the American soldier who killed, execution style, 16 civilians, including nine children, in Kandahar, Afghanistan on March 11, 2012, is relevant in another respect. The military treated these war crimes as an unauthorized act. Otherwise, the military itself and by extension the American government, would also be responsible for these war crimes. The fact that the slayings occurred was itself not evidence that the government was responsible. Yet, in the case of Syria, the act, not the authorization, is enough to impute the crime to the government in the eyes of our hawks.

This is how vigilantes think. They are always certain of the correct ad hoc justice. The reason that they are disfavored is because the rule of law is generally considered more important than ad hoc justice in a particular case. Will the world be more secure if the United States decides on its own, without benefit of opposing opinions, which countries deserve “punishment”? Surely, the recent experience in Iraq suggests that even the United States might be fallible.

2. A unilateral military action is not appropriate for “punishment.” It is difficult to see how a missile strike on Syria is appropriately designed to vindicate international law on the use of chemical weapons. Generally when a war crime or crime against humanity is alleged, the individuals responsible are sought to be brought before a properly constituted tribunal for trial. I have been unable to find any sort of analogy, where a simple or even extended aerial bombardment is considered the appropriate punishment for a crime. It is true that often a war is necessary to stop the crime or to topple the regime that is committing the crime or to locate and bring to justice the individual criminals. But the President has expressly disavowed any interest in any of these last remedies. So we will be left with a precedent that this Administration believes that targeted aerial destruction, by itself, is the appropriate “remedy” for illegal chemical weapons use.

This really cannot be either legally sound or even good national security policy. How can a punitive bombardment, expressly designed not to topple the government presumed to have committed crimes against humanity, be considered a civilized response? Why not simply execute, say, twenty Syrian officers? Or even civilians (a number of which are bound to die in these attacks)? The fact is that this Administration has grown far to comfortable with long distance, anonymous, aerial warfare. It seems antiseptic to them. Insulated within their national security bubble, they are not moved by evidence (since World War II) that such attacks harden attitudes and willingness to fight, create animosity throughout the world against us, and rarely result in the hoped-for goals.

Our ability to inflict random pain on other countries (which they cannot reciprocate in kind) is seen by our leaders as a great advantage. In fact, it is a great danger to us. It is likely that we are made more insecure by these adventures as groups become convinced that they have no military or legal or international recourse against our fiats. Because these countries do not have the ability to launch missiles on the White House and Capitol (our leaders would never consider striking countries with such capabilities), American civilians by necessity must be the targets of retaliation. But the problem is worse than that. The use of asymmetrical aerial warfare becomes addicting to the leaders who rely on them. They are apparently costless to the political leaders. (They don’t carry with them the visuals of returning caskets.) And they are cheap to the military. (The missiles have already been paid for; no additional appropriation is required.) They have the appearance of precision, because American journalists cannot immediately verify civilian casualties. So these weapons become the tools of choice for leaders who need political prestige or simply don’t want to do the heavy lifting of attempting to create an international legal order. The current President’s journey from Nobel peace laureate to Breaking Bad drone addict is quite stark. He is not even the same person who addressed the students in Cairo four years ago. (Of course, given his belated withdrawal of support from Hosni Mubarak and his current support for the anti-democratic generals there, he probably could not even risk addressing anyone in Cairo now.)

3. There is no such thing as a “surgical” strike. Once the missiles are launched, the President will have very little control over what will happen. It is certain, however, that the attack will either affect the balance of power in the current civil war (which the President disclaims intending) or it will not. If it does, the chemical weapons which cause him so much security concerns will be in danger of falling into the hands of persons outside the government. This will likely make their proliferation (outside our control) more, rather than less likely. This is seen by the fact that current anti-government rebels have been found already with sarin. This may have already happened. Turkish media report that Syrian Islamist rebels were discovered in possession of sarin last May. This fact, only recently reported, might cause many reasonable persons to wonder whether the attacks that the President wants to retaliate over were planted by rebels groups, rather than the Syrian government. If that were the case, the U.S. military action might bring about the very thing they claim they are worried about: unaccountable proliferation of the chemical weapons.

But even dismissing the concern that the strikes cannot achieve what the Administration claims is their only purpose, once the attacks begin and the realities on the ground are changed by them, the President will be under intense pressure to “do more.” American military involvement in foreign countries for the past half decade have been characterized by “mission creep.” Because the result of “limited” military action never achieves the optimistic goals assigned them, the temptation is unavoidable to “surge” our way out of the problem. And while that tendency is quite excellent at vastly increasing civilian casualties, generating anti-Us.S. feelings, resulting in American deaths and casualties, and costing immense treasures, it has never been useful in achieving the “narrow” goals we initiated the conflict with. Instead, it changes our goals. Even the celebrated surge of General Petraeus, which once convinced our formerly anti-war President of its effectiveness, now appears, in light of the continued and increasingly bloody civil warfare being waged in Iraq, to be less than panacea it was once universally regarded. And the Afghan “surge” has simply spread out the intractable pacification problem. Why does the military always suggest widening the conflict despite past experience? Because the leadership never is punished for its bad advice. Our bloated senior staff will continue with their lavish lifestyle until they take a lucrative retirement, no matter how badly their service panned out.

And if the military were not enough, there are always self-promotional politicians like John McCain to bang the drums for more war. McCain never seems to have a solution to problems other than a military one, even when a military solution is not working. His answer is always more military action. McCain is of course an unprincipled hack, but Presidents always feel vulnerable to attacks from hawks. Anti-war pressure must be mobilized from the grass-roots and it takes time and immense effort. Pro-war pressure is always there. There are vested careers at stake, military contracts to win or preserve and cheap political points to win. The point was long ago made, during the Vietnam War: it might be easy to mount a tiger, but once on its back, it’s impossible to dismount.

4. In this particular case, the proposed action is fraught with dangers. The President himself appears to understand that throwing in with the opposition in the Syrian Civil War may be exchanging one evil for another. Which is worse, no one can tell. And indeed, it is not the President’s call to make. But if we have no long-term solution to this crisis, what can we achieve by inserting Western military in a limited way? Surely no rational person believes that there is a correct quantum of force that will prevent further chemical attacks but not otherwise affect the balance of power. Part of the reason is that no one can be sure that in fact it was the Syrian government that used the weapons (and even if the weapons were illegal chemical weapons, like sarin).

All of this adds up to a potential disaster. We have, once again, a President whose rhetoric has closed off a face-saving retreat. We are about to use deadly force, because the President strayed off the reservation and is afraid of taking the political heat that would come from acknowledging his mistake. One can sympathize with the President. He after all has uttered far fewer inflammatory statements on international flashpoints than almost all of the previous nine Presidents. But it is part of what we expect from our Executive (but rarely receive) to accept the heat from the rabid Washington pundits and opponents, when the mistake is his. Barack Obama has decided instead to double-down. The responsibility is now Congress’s. But even when they (inevitably) fail to act rationally, history and the rest of the world will consider this Obama’s mistake.

  1. Another great post, DK. It is just stunning to see our “reporters” constantly forget to mention that military strikes would be criminal under international law. Obama’s mere threatening strikes is a war crime, but you never hear any establishment media discuss this. American hegemony/exceptionalism is now just furniture in the room and beyond any particular notice.

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