Two takes and one prayer on Syria

My take on what to do in Syria has drifted from agnosticism to skepticism over the last week.  This authorized DoD leak New York Times story by David Sanger and Eric Schmitt about what the Pentagon is planning to do in Syria ain't helping:

President Obama directed the Pentagon to develop an expanded list of potential targets in Syria in response to intelligence suggesting that the government of President Bashar Al-Assad has been moving troops and equipment used to employ chemical weapons while Congress debates whether to authorize military action.

Mr. Obama, officials said, is now determined to put more emphasis on the “degrade” part of what the administration has said is the goal of a military strike against Syria— to “deter and degrade” Mr. Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. That means expanding beyond the 50 or so major sites that were part of the original target list developed with French forces before Mr. Obama delayed action on Saturday to seek Congressional approval of his plan.

For the first time, the administration is talking about using American and French aircraft to conduct strikes on specific targets, in addition to ship-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles. There is a renewed push to get other NATO forces involved....

Mr. Obama’s instructions come as most members of Congress who are even willing to consider voting in favor of a military response to a chemical attack are insisting on strict limits on the duration and type of the strikes carried out by the United States, while a small number of Republicans are telling the White House that the current plans are not muscular enough to destabilize the Assad government.

Senior officials are aware of the competing imperatives they now confront — that to win even the fight on Capitol Hill, they will have to accept restrictions on the military response, and in order to make the strike meaningful they must expand its scope.

“They are being pulled in two different directions,” a senior foreign official involved in the discussions said Thursday. “The worst outcome would be to come out of this bruising battle with Congress and conduct a military action that made little difference.”

Officials cautioned that the options for an increased American strike would still be limited — “think incremental increase, not exponential,” said one official — but would be intended to inflict significant damage on the Syrian military.

There are two ways of thinking about this story.  The positive spin is that this is the DoD's equivalent of the Federal Reserve's "forward guidance" -- a signal to both allies and adversaries alike about what will come to pass.  In monetary policy, forward guidance is a way of crafting stable expectations about the future -- not that this works all the time.  In this case, one wonders whether these leaks are trying to signal to Assad and his great power benefactors the wisdom of sitting down and negotiating with the rebels rather than trying to grind out a military victory.  At the risk of setting off the Bad Analogy Detector, this is akin to how both Bosnia and Kosovo played out -- and if the Syria outcome matched either of those cases, the after-action assessment would be that this would be a foreign policy triumph for the U.S. and A Good Thing for Syrians. 

The negative spin is that, contrary to the Times reportage, Obama's decision to go to Congress is actually leading him to expand rather than contract his policy aims.  It had seemed that the initial goal of this operation was to deter Assad (and other possible chemical weapons users) into not using WMDs again.  Going to Congress for a few symbolic missile strikes, however, seems like an awful lot of political capital to expend for very little return.  In order to curry favor with both the liberal internationalists on the Democratic side and the neoconservative sympathizers on the GOP side, the administration needs to expand its goals to include intervening in the Syrian civil war.  Which means this is less about the norm against chemical weapons use and more about trying to bring an end to Syria's conflict. That's a noble cause -- I'm just not sure if it's doable. 

We're in the middle of Rosh Hashanah, and at services yesterday, I noted that the siddur at my synagogue had a petty apt prayer that seems worth repeating here: 

We pray for all who hold positions of leadership and responsibility in our national life.  Let Your blessing rest upon them, and make them responsive to Your will, so that our nation may be to the world an example of justice and compassion


[You're resorting to prayer?!--ed.  Given how this Syria debate is playing out, yes, and given my updated Bayesian priors on how well the United States executes foreign policy in the Middle East, you're damned right I'm resorting to prayer.]

Daniel W. Drezner

International lawyers give it the old college try

So Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro -- professors of international law at Yale University -- have an op-ed in today's New York Times in which they say... pretty much what you'd expect professors of international law to say about the prospect of an attack on Syria outside of U.N. auspices:

If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all — the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval. This rule may be even more important to the world’s security — and America’s — than the ban on the use of chemical weapons....

Some argue that international law provides for a “responsibility to protect” that allows states to intervene during humanitarian disasters, without Security Council authorization. They point to NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo. But in 2009 the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, rejected this view, finding that “the responsibility to protect does not alter, indeed it reinforces, the legal obligations of Member States to refrain from the use of force except in conformity with the Charter,” a position he affirmed on Tuesday. (The Independent International Commission on Kosovo found that the intervention was “illegal but legitimate.”)

Well... yes, but the New York Times write-up of Ban Ki-moon's statement contained a bit more ambiguity: 

Asked if Mr. Obama’s proposal would be illegal under the United Nations Charter, Mr. Ban answered, “I have taken note of President Obama’s statement, and I appreciate efforts to have his future course of action based on the broad opinions of the American people, particularly Congress, and I hope this process will have good results.”

He did not specify what he meant by “good results.”

Mr. Ban also reiterated, “We should avoid further militarization of the conflict, revitalize the search for a political settlement.”

This is likely part and parcel of Ban being diplomatic towards a P-5 member who is contemplating action outside U.N. auspices, but it's not exactly a stern warning either. 

Back to Hathaway and Shapiro. It's the part after this that I think suffers from a bit of, shall we say, monocausality:

Consider the world that preceded the United Nations. The basic rule of that system, one that lasted for centuries, was that states had just cause to go to war when legal rights had been violated. Spain tried to justify its conquest of the Americas by saying it was protecting indigenous civilians from atrocities committed by other indigenous peoples. The War of the Austrian Succession was fought over whether a woman had a right to inherit the throne. The United States largely justified the Mexican-American War, including the conquest of California and much of what is now the Southwest, by pointing to Mexico’s failure to pay old tort claims and outstanding debts.

The problem with the old system was not that no one could enforce the law, but that too many who wished to do so could. The result was almost constant war.

In the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 and in the United Nations Charter of 1945, the world rejected this system. States were forbidden to enforce the law on their own and had to work through a system of collective security.

For all its obvious failings, the United Nations system has made for a more peaceful world than the one that preceded it. No leader may claim the right to collect debts or gain thrones by going to war. States may fracture into smaller pieces, but they don’t get conquered. Gunboat diplomacy is also out of the question.

OK, first of all, points to Hathaway and Shapiro:  this might be the first positive mention of the Kellogg-Briand pact in an op-ed that I've ever read.  I don't mean that in a snarky way, either -- I've honestly never seen that treaty talked about favorably. 

More importantly, however, methinks Hathaway and Shapiro might be confusing correlation with causation here.  It is certainly true that the United Nations has played an important role in making for a more peaceful world. So, however, has nuclear weapons and U.S. military hegemony -- and I say this as a skeptic of the latter's virtues.  More provocatively, I'm not sure I buy Hathaway and Shapiro's assertion that the norms they praise are a function of international law or the United Nations Charter.  Neither of these elements blocked the U.S. or U.S.S.R. from intervening willy-nilly during the Cold War.  

I get what Hathaway and Shapiro are trying to do here, but if this intervention were to work, the outcome would likely be the same as Kosovo -- an "illegal but legitimate" verdict from history that would have minimal long-term implications.  If the intervention is fated to fail, however... then it's a lose-lose proposition:  international law has been weakened with no positive result. 

What do you think? 

UPDATE:  Erik Voeten blogs along the same lines, but much more thoroughly and persuasively than I did here.