Over the past two years, many thoughtful pieces have advocated for U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war. A review of such pieces reveals three core justifications: protecting civilians; altering the battlefield to help topple Assad or facilitate a diplomatic solution; and countering Iranian influence in the region. Very few have emphasized the need for the U.S. military to uphold international norms.
However, since the White House recently made norm-enforcement the primary, professed basis for attacking Syria, intervention advocates have adopted this reasoning. Indicative of this shift, in the 24 months preceding Secretary of State John Kerry's August 26 speech, the words "international norm" and "Syria" appeared together 263 times in the 6,075 English-language news publications surveyed by the search engine Lexis Nexis, and 792 times in the 13 days after. Naturally, the normative argument has also become fodder for those opposing intervention, with Sen. Ted Cruz proclaiming on Sunday, "I don't think that's the job of our military, to be defending amorphous international norms."
There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate that are worth discussing: what, exactly, norms are and how a state can and should go about enforcing them. The answers to these questions, taken together with recent, contradictory statements by the administration about its aims, reveal that, when it comes to international normative arguments, the U.S. is on shaky ground with its quest to strike Syria.
Norms, defined as "shared expectations about appropriate behavior held by a community of actors," are socially constructed, highly contested, and forever changing. In international relations, both weak and powerful states attempt to promote and socialize norms that are in their own self-interest, while diminishing the salience of those that are not. As political scientist Ward Thomas notes, norms are "both products of and constraints upon state action, serving an essentially instrumental purpose." For example, President Richard Nixon unilaterally abandoned U.S. offensive biological weapons programs (over the unanimous objection of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) in part for moral and diplomatic reasons, but also for material ones: Biological weapons provided no strategic deterrent advantages over nuclear weapons.
As compared to other norms, the one against the use of chemical weapons in warfare is widely endorsed, meeting international relations scholar Jeffrey Legro's three criteria for what constitutes a robust norm: specificity, durability, and concordance. Somewhat counterintuitively, the norm's durability has been further reinforced in Syria: Assad has been compelled to claim that he has never used chemical weapons, and his patron, Russia, is contending that chemical weapons attacks have only been conducted by rebel forces. Since Syrian security forces have not deployed chemical weapons in a widespread and indiscriminate manner since the opening days of the civil war, Assad has not embraced their use. He has also negotiated the -- albeit delayed and constrained -- United Nations chemical weapons inspection team access to sites where the attacks occurred to collect physical evidence.
With an understanding of what constitutes norms, the more pointed version of the second question of interest here is whether the U.S. bombing of Syria, with little overt or direct international support, would be the most widely accepted and enduring means of enforcing the norm against chemical weapons. As one senior administration official warned, "[D]oing nothing sends a message... that you can carry out chemical weapons attacks with impunity." This assumes both that any alternatives to military force are "nothing," and that the only way to enforce this international norm is with a few days of cruise missiles and airstrikes.
Unfortunately for the White House, there are norms about enforcement that contrast with its approach. Syria is a state party to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases" in warfare, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which forbids the arbitrary deprivation of life. Neither of these treaties allows for a single country to be the arbiter and enforcement authority. Most world leaders and international lawyers believe Syria's referral to the International Criminal Court, U.N. Human Rights Council, and/or the Security Council must be the first step before collective enforcement and punishment procedures are chosen.