Micah Zenko

The Wrong Way to Be Right

Obama's shoddy case for striking Syria to enforce international norms.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

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.

If President Obama does not follow any of these near universally accepted enforcement procedures, and — with or without Congress’s approval — authorizes a near-unilateral attack against Assad regime targets, the U.S. will be derided, rejected, or ignored by much of the international community. An attack would build upon the already long and tragic history of American military involvement in the Middle East. Nobody in the region, or elsewhere for that matter, would conceive of this particular intervention in isolation from all the U.S. troops, missiles, and bombs that preceded them. Nothing captures public attention and anger like widely televised and well reported uses of military force. Should Obama proceed on the current path, the world will again remember America’s bombs far longer than the horrendous war crime that they were a response to.

Further weakening the U.S. stance are the ways in which it has already undermined its norm-enforcement argument. Many of the upcoming targets, for instance, would be unrelated to chemical weapons. During the analogous four-day, U.S.-United Kingdom bombing of Iraq in December 1998, only 30 of the 100 target sets were connected to Saddam Hussein’s purported weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missile capabilities. Saddam’s presidential palaces and Baath Party headquarters were severely damaged, his air defense system was temporarily crippled, and approximately 1,400 Iraqi soldiers were killed in their command posts and barracks. It is worth recalling that, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Hugh Shelton initially presented the December 1998 operational plans to Bill Clinton, the president voluntarily increased the number of cruise missile and strike sorties that would be permitted so the U.S. military could expand the target set in Iraq. The same scope of targeting beyond those forces or facilities associated with chemical weapons is being prepared for Syria.

In a similar vein, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Obama and Kerry have told members of Congress privately that the goal of the strikes is to "change the momentum" on the battlefield. Once initial Tomahawk cruise missiles arrived, the United States would become a co-belligerent in Syria’s civil war, on behalf of the armed opposition. This contradicts public assertions about norms. Kerry, for instance, has contended, "We are trying to enforce the international norm against that behavior, and that’s all that this military strike seeks to do." However, no matter how often a near-unilateral U.S. military operation is touted by the Obama administration as norm enforcement, it would primarily be about regime erosion. Everyone would correctly perceive it as such — and if it fails, judge it as such.

The Obama administration has also harmed its norm-enforcement case in its attempts to claim that there are no distinctions among chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and that any diminishment of the norm against chemical weapons could embolden, in Kerry’s words, "every other terrorist group or dictator that might ever again contemplate the use of weapons of mass destruction." Moreover, Kerry has elevated chemical weapons above nuclear or biological weapons by contending that chemical weapons are "the most heinous weapons." This is simply false if destructive power, lethality, or degrees of human suffering are components of the heinous-ness of the tools of warfare.

Furthermore, Obama has made an extraordinary claim of global norm-linkage, saying that, "if that norm [against chemical weapons use] unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling." This normative domino theory is mere speculation and without any confirming evidence in recent history. Just as nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons should not be lumped together, all norms are not created equal, nor are they so tightly coupled.

The combination of Obama’s choice of norm enforcement by military means without the active participation of many other countries and outside of widely agreed-upon violation procedures explains why, although most countries agree that prohibiting chemical weapons use is an international norm worth defending, they overwhelmingly disagree with how the United States wants to enforce it in Syria. As the Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami noted recently in Foreign Policy, "It is improbable, then, that people who don’t believe America is acting because of chemical weapons use will draw any new conclusions on chemical weapons norms."

Punishing and deterring transgressions of the norm against the repeated and indiscriminate use of chemical weapons is something the United States should endorse. Unfortunately, with regard to Syria, it has chosen the wrong style, process, and military-first approach to do so.   

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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