President Obama was seemingly surprised at reactions to his initial threat to attack Syria for its use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21. After all, it was a moral outrage, killing upwards of 1,400 people. It was a gross violation of international norms to use chemical weapons. As he argued then, and again last Tuesday, taking action is both moral and in the national interest. So why do Americans and the world not see it so clearly?
The president seemed not to have realized: (1) there are many norms, including norms regarding the non-use of force; (2) many interests compete with the need to uphold norms or America’s reputation to follow through on red lines; and (3) other people’s faith in our intentions and intelligence gathering is precarious, especially since 2003. Let’s call it the “Iraq Effect.”
The president seems to have heard concerns relating to the Iraq Effect: he went to great pains Tuesday to say he understood skepticism about intentions and intelligence. But his answer was essentially “trust us this time,” even though the UN inspections have yet to conclude, and hadn’t even started when Obama expressed confidence that Assad’s government was responsible.
As for national interests, the president emphasizes the important interest of punishing WMD use as a deterrent to future use, which is a valid point. But there are other interests at stake, such as regional instability or the possible rise of al-Qaida in the power vacuum of a collapsed Syria. The president assures us the goal is limited, while also saying there are no “pin pricks” in our military power. Even if he’s right, the psychology of persuading a skeptical world that the mission will be limited is daunting, given how previous humanitarian missions have ended up in regime change (Libya) or territorial breakups (Kosovo).
As for norms, what about upholding the chemical weapons taboo? Why do so many not share Obama’s concern for their use? The answer, of course, is that they do. But not everybody jumped to the idea that bombing Syria is the answer. First, it is not yet proven Assad’s government ordered an attack. But even if he did, many are not sure bombing is the best way to uphold norms. Jumping to a threat of missile strikes immediately weakened America’s international standing when it should have been building a case and coalition, thus capturing the moral high ground that Obama assumed we already had.
Second, another norm, codified in the UN Charter since 1945, is that states should not attack other countries, except (a) in self defense, or (b) by authorization by the UN Security Council. To attack a country simply out of moral outrage is against international law. Now, some may say “who cares about international law?” The answer is: lots of people and governments around the world, who fear and loathe a superpower without regard to the rules. The U.S. must be careful not to discard one norm due to the violation of another. To maintain its position in the world, the U.S. must care about its reputation for legitimacy as much as its reputation for resolve.
That means doing the hard work of diplomacy and multilateralism, which seems to be where we are heading. It buys Obama time to capture the high road at last, holding Syria and the Russians to account and building international support for any contingency plans for military action.
But multilateralism is hard, partly because the U.S. is used to getting its way. Since the end of the Cold War, a generation of U.S. policy has been able to do as it pleases. Such unilateralism has come with the cost in burdening wars alone and overstretching our military power. But what also has been lost is the sense and skill of diplomacy. So long as vital American interests aren’t in jeopardy, engaging Russia may yield fruit — not just on Syria’s chemical weapons but a political solution to Syria’s civil war. If we truly care about the lives lost there, a political solution must be found.
The Security Council is a perhaps frustrating, but important institution for managing American interests and the enforcing of international norms. It has been treated as a nuisance by American liberal hawks and conservative hawks alike when council deliberations get in the way of their desires. But international politics is serious business, requiring a variety of interests and powers to manage. Letting Russia, China, and others be involved is not weakness, retrenchment or appeasement; it’s reassuring, cost-saving, good sense that may yield solutions to Syria’s problems and to America’s image abroad.
Guest columnist Vaughn Shannon is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Wright State University.
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