It now seems to be the general consensus that President Obama’s Syria policy is a contradictory mess. But that’s only how it appears on the surface. Probe a bit deeper and it’s very seriously deranged.

The most obvious problem is symptomatic of the rest. Why draw a red line against the use of chemical weapons? For over two years, President Obama has kept aloof from the Syrian conflict. More than 100,000 people have died in the ensuing slaughter. But Obama insisted the United States must take action to confront the last 1 percent of those deaths​—​people killed by chemical weapons. Why draw the line there?

One can say death by chemical weapons is particularly gruesome. But gunfire and artillery don’t usually induce painless oblivion. Anyway, deaths from hacking machetes must be quite as agonizing as those from chemically induced seizures. That did not rouse the United States to intervene in Rwanda, when nearly a million civilians were killed that way. Nor to intervene in ongoing wars in central Africa, which have brought a more staggering death toll over the last 30 years.

Cynics assume the president simply got trapped by his impulsive comments about red lines a year ago, and that all policy lurches since then have simply aimed at preserving his own credibility. But I don’t think he chose that red line impulsively. Nor was he compelled by longstanding international understandings. Saddam Hussein used these weapons against Iranian soldiers and then Iraqi Kurds (including civilians) as recently as the 1980s. There was no serious international response at the time, no specific deterrent threat from the United States.

But human rights activists did start to mobilize then to suppress chemical weapons, seeing that as an achievable goal for humanitarian effort. And amidst the optimism of the post-Cold War era, they helped secure the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, banning even the possession of these weapons. I think the president’s red line is best understood as a commitment to stand by the priorities of international rights activists​—​such as his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power.

But that raises the next problem. If you want to be legalistic, Syria is not a signatory of that convention. The president brushed that aside on the grounds that 98 percent of the world’s people live under governments that have repudiated chemical weapons. Well, by that logic, various conventions not actually ratified by the United States​—​including mischievous human rights treaties, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and worrisome arms control agreements, like the convention against landmines​—​should still be binding on us because almost all other governments have endorsed them. Is that an approach to international law that can be embraced by the president of the United States?

We can stipulate that views about chemical weapons have evolved in recent times​—​say, since the Second World War, when we stockpiled a lot of them so that we might retaliate in kind if they were used against us. We can also stipulate that these weapons are now viewed as so abhorrent that we wouldn’t even think to use them in retaliation (as we promised we wouldn’t when we ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1998). That doesn’t mean we have the right​—​let alone the obligation​—​to impose punishing military strikes against any country that does use them, if they are not used on us or on our allies.

The view expressed by the president is a startling innovation in international law, at least as the law has developed since the 17th century, when European states renounced religious wars. Everyone sees the point in domestic affairs. If your neighbor breaks into your house, you can defend yourself with force. If your neighbor violates drug laws in his own house, you call the police. If you hear screams from next door but you know your neighbor is armed and police are far away, you had better be cautious and at least round up other neighbors to help.

The president’s view would make the U.S military the world’s policeman​—​literally. But a policeman acting with no courts to constrain it. The traditional view was that the absence of reliable international controls made it more important for powerful states to act with restraint. It certainly moved other states to distrust claims by great powers to be acting from disinterested, humanitarian motives.

We don’t want to encourage needless suspicion of American actions or demands for more serious international controls on our actions. So you might think the president would want to reassure the world that we respect limits on our right to intervene. But the president has cited no precedent from American history for unilateral military intervention to vindicate abstract international norms, when there was no direct element of threat to our country, our citizens, or our allies. I doubt such precedents can be found, even from the history of other nations (or, at least, other modern liberal states).

It’s not a legalistic point. It’s one thing when we stretch accepted rationales for military intervention because we think our vital interests are at stake, as we have done at various times when deposing chaotic governments in our neighborhood​—​as in the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989. Other countries can understand such actions, even if they disagree with our assessments. If we limit our actions to vital interests, we reassure the world that we are not claiming the right to intervene wherever we have the physical capacity to do so.

We would be quite alarmed to see China invoking a general right to enforce international law wherever its leaders think such law needs more active enforcing​—​as perhaps in central Africa. That may explain why no country other than France has offered to assist us in attacking Syria or even expressed approval for U.S. attacks.

Even worse, when we position ourselves as disinterested enforcers of public norms, we make it much harder to assess where our own interests actually lie. For the Obama team, that seems to be what makes that approach attractive. We are not acting for ourselves but for an abstract commitment to law. So we don’t have to worry about actual consequences on the ground.

That is very nearly the Obama administration’s position on Syria. The announced aim was to “punish” Assad without affecting the military balance in the civil war. But if we really mean to punish, we can’t help affecting the military balance. Somehow it seems important to Obama to avoid having actual strategic consequences​—​as if purity of purpose requires that we not take sides or care about actual outcomes.

That sort of high-minded indifference can be hard on people who live there and care quite a bit more about local consequences. But it is also hard on Americans, who bear the risks for a policy which disclaims any concrete American interest, even something as mundane as which side will win.

It’s precisely the thinking that underlies the International Criminal Court, which has no troops but also no pardon power. It is designed to hand down judgments of law, without regard to whether it restrains aggressors or pushes them into murderous corners, as it may have done by blocking any peaceful escape for Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, committing him to a drawn-out struggle. The Obama administration has decided to take on the moral authority of the ICC (such as it is) without any of the formalities of legal representation for defendants.

And like the ICC, we insist that the world must be prepared to police norms in internal conflicts as in international conflicts. The traditional view was that it is better to keep conflicts localized, so outsiders must leave contending sides to fight it out on their own. True, we have not always honored the international norm against intervention in another state’s domestic quarrels. We did, for example, give assistance to rebels against established governments in Afghanistan and in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

But even in such cases, we acted indirectly, refraining from direct U.S. military action on the ground. To avoid open defiance of the nonintervention norm, we kept even our indirect involvement somewhat covert​—​with activities conducted by the CIA rather than the Department of Defense. Still, for all our cautions, we did pick a side.

If you don’t want to pick a side, because you don’t want to be seen pursuing a strategic interest of your own, you may actually seek publicity for your intervention. You want credit for associating yourself with international norms in the abstract. No glory crowns the secret champion of public norms. So it’s logical that the administration, while disclaiming any intervention in the actual conflict, has now put its emphasis on negotiating an international inspections system to “remove the threat of Assad’s chemical weapons.” We’re upholding international norms, after all!

Except, of course, no international disarmament scheme can possibly work in today’s Syria. There won’t be U.S. boots on the ground, so those chemical weapons stockpiles will, at best, be guarded by hapless peacekeepers​—​who can’t be relied on to risk their lives to protect those stockpiles. And we’ll depend on Assad to say where all the stockpiles are, with no reliable way to determine whether he’s cheating. If we do, nevertheless, commit to a disarmament scheme brokered by Russia, we’ll find it hard to bomb Assad’s military on the side or even give much help to rebels. American policy will be committed to an international scheme that depends on Assad’s cooperation.

The consequences won’t be limited to Syria, however. If we say a Russian arms control plan is adequate to control Assad’s chemical weapons, how will we mobilize support for a confrontation with Iran? Iran is already subject to inspections under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has, in fact, cooperated with inspections. Not fully, not adequately, and always with dodges and delays and legal wrangling about the findings of international inspectors.

But having settled for unverifiable controls in Syria, Obama will find it much harder to persuade the world​—​or the American public​—​that it’s worth taking great risks to stop such dodges in Iran. And very much harder to persuade Iran that he’s not bluffing if he demands that they prove they have ended their drive to attain nuclear weapons.

As a practical matter, chemical weapons in Syria pose far less risk to the region or the world than nuclear weapons in Iranian hands. The former can kill hundreds, the latter hundreds of thousands, potentially millions. If Iran does get nuclear weapons, everyone in the region will calculate on the basis of that difference.

Striving to find some direct American stake in punishing Assad’s use of chemical weapons, President Obama argued in his televised speech that allowing one dictator to “get away with” using these weapons would encourage others to use them, and eventually they might be used against American troops. So we are staking the protection of American troops on an international norm. Perhaps President Obama hopes that Iran will be deterred from making nuclear threats by another international norm.

For now, at any rate, the administration has staked its chips on upholding international law by registering opposition to Assad’s chemical arsenal. Let us hope it proves another bluff. International norms are not much of a defense against the sectarian frenzies and murderous passions of today’s Middle East.

Jeremy Rabkin is professor of law at George Mason University.

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