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Worse Than It Looks

A close reading of the red line.

Sep 23, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 03 • By JEREMY RABKIN
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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!

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