Last week Secretary of State John Kerry delivered his remarks regarding the potential use of limited air strikes in Syria. Some key quotes are:
“The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children.”
“So the primary question is really no longer, what do we know. The question is, what are we — we collectively — what are we in the world gonna do about it.”
“And make no mistake, in an increasingly complicated world of sectarian and religious extremist violence, what we choose to do or not do matters in real ways to our own security. Some site the risk of doing things. But we need to ask, “What is the risk of doing nothing?””
“It is about Hezbollah and North Korea and every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction. Will they remember that the Assad regime was stopped from those weapons’ current or future use? Or will they remember that the world stood aside and created impunity?”
“My friends, it matters here if nothing is done. It matters if the world speaks out in condemnation and then nothing happens.”
“So now that we know what we know, the question we must all be asking is: What will we do? “
“President Obama will ensure that the United States of America makes our own decisions on our own timelines, based on our values and our interests. Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am, too.”
“But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility. Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about. And history would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency, these things we do know.”
“And he has said, very clearly, that whatever decision he makes in Syria it will bear no resemblance to Afghanistan, Iraq or even Libya. It will not involve any boots on the ground. It will not be open ended. And it will not assume responsibility for a civil war that is already well underway.
The president has been clear: Any action that he might decide to take will be limited and (sic) tailored response to ensure that, a despots brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable. And ultimately, ultimately we are committed — we remain committed, we believe it’s — the primary objective is (sic) to have a diplomatic process that can resolve this through negotiation, because we know there is no ultimate military solution.
It has to be political.
It has to happen at the negotiating table.
And we are deeply committed to getting there.”
Kerry appealed to two basic justifications for a military intervention in Syria: something akin to a responsibility to protect, and America’s “values and interests.” The numbers cited by Kerry are of the number of people recently killed by chemical weapons. The US government has refused to intervene militarily for months, but has warned that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” which the US must respond to if the conflict escalated to that level. During the months preceding the use of those weapons over 100,000 civilians had been killed.
Now, chemical weapons kill people in a particularly agonizing way, and have the potential to reach many innocents by way of its dispersion. However, the numbers killed by such weapons have been a small percentage of those killed in this conflict. In short, if the responsibility to protect were the primary motivation for an intervention it would have been employed much earlier.
It appears to me, then, that the primary motivation for the intervention is more about America’s “values and interests” than it is about a responsibility to protect. What values and interests? First, not allowing a country like Syria to ignore the words of the US. Syria violated the desires of the US and, the argument goes, must be punished for it. This does not justify a military strike.
The US also has an interest in the maintenance of the international norm against the use of chemical weapons. And this interest has been repeatedly appealed to by Kerry and Obama and others. From the rhetoric I’ve seen, the most prominent reason for such strikes would be to send a message to the rest of the world, especially Iran, not to use such weapons. However, there is no evidence that such an intervention will actually contribute to maintaining this norm.
Kerry argued that a “culture of impunity” must not be created. This is a popular phrase among international lawyers. The idea behind the phrase is that persons who violate human rights must be punished to deter potential future violators from emulating those who have not been punished. This has usually been used in the context of justifying international criminal trials, but is here used to justify a military intervention.
The classic case that is appealed to is a (perhaps apocryphal) statement of Hitler along the lines of, “Who remembers the Armenians?” Basically, the story goes, Hitler appealed to the lack of international response to the Armenian genocide to justify his actions in Europe. Thus, we must punish human rights violators to avoid future Hitlers.
There is no evidence, however, that those who act to violate human rights at mass levels take such information into consideration. Genocide and the mass violation of human rights are so outside the scope of morality and legality that it is hard to imagine genocidairs doing a cost-benefit analysis before engaging in their actions. Indeed, Assad’s use of these weapons after being told that they were the red line not to be crossed is evidence that such considerations are not usually in play. And, it must be said, that the rapid increase of international criminal trials since WWII have not been sufficient to deter those who have violated human rights since that time. An international culture of punishment does not seem to have led to deterrence.
In addition, Kerry has made it clear that there would be “no boots on the ground” and that this would be a limited, targeted strike intended to make Assad stop using these weapons. However, there is no tangible measure of success here. Would it be sufficient if Assad were to go back to killing civilians with more traditional weapons? This seems doubtful. If not, what would be the measure of the success of the mission? Anything beyond Assad choosing different weapons to slaughter people would seem to require “boots on the ground.” In other words, this would be entering a war. And, as Sec. Kerry said, “we know there is no ultimate military solution.”
In just war theory there are a variety of criteria that must be met for a war to be deemed just. One is a “just cause.” If the primary justification for the intervention was the protection of innocent civilians this criteria would seemingly be met. However, folks have been calling for an intervention on these grounds for months with almost no traction from the US government. This makes it seem doubtful that “responsibility to protect” is the primary criterion at work. However, even if the responsibility to protect was the primary justification, meeting this one criterion would not be sufficient, though it is necessary, to justify the strikes. Other criteria that need to be met are “a reasonable chance of success” and the likelihood that the action would not create worse harms than those it seeks to remedy. It is hard to know if there is a reasonable chance of success since we don’t know what success would mean, and the recent history of US intervention in the world raises legitimate doubts that this action won’t cause comparable evils to the one which would justify the strikes.
However, prior to that level of critique I think it is important to take a step back and ask: Why the US? The United States has not joined the International Criminal Court, the primary legal body in place to judge those who violate human rights, because it is concerned that if it did some of its citizens – some of its politicians! – might be tried. The US holds, by far, the largest stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons in the world – and has used them in the past without any legal consequences. We have used torture in recent conflicts that were justified on humanitarian terms. The hypocrisy rings loud in the ears of many around the world. The US does not have the international moral authority to police the world. The body that does, the United Nations, has not called for a military intervention. Yes, international politics are holding up that process, but it remains that there has been no such call. And the US is in no moral or legal place to act under its own authority.
There is simply no moral justification for US military strikes in Syria.