Jus ad Bellum/UN Charter/Sovereignty

British Bow Out of Syria Intervention, USG Plunging Ahead

By Jack Goldsmith
Thursday, August 29, 2013, 8:10 PM

As Wells noted, the British Parliament rejected a motion of support for British participation in military strikes against Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons against its citizens.  Here are the stories in the NYT and Guardian.  After the vote Prime Minister Cameron issued this statement:

It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion, it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action.  I get that and the government will act accordingly.

In a separate story, the NYT reports that “President Obama is prepared to move ahead with a limited military strike on Syria . . . even with a rejection of such action by Britain’s Parliament, an increasingly restive Congress, and lacking an endorsement from the United Nations Security Council.”  And, the NYT might have added, without the support of the American people.

This is very dangerous territory for the President.  Forget the Constitution for a moment.  Why won’t the President pay the same respect to American democracy that David Cameron paid to British democracy?  (I offered answers to this question a few days ago, but the question is much more poignant now that the British Parliament has spoken against intervention.)

The NYT says that the President “is basing his case for action both on safeguarding international standards against the use of chemical weapons and on the threat to America’s national interests posed by Syria’s use of those weapons.”  These rationales are very weak – especially since the President would be violating international law to “safeguard international standards,” since our closest ally Britain withdrew from the fight, since the U.N. failed to authorize force, and since the Arab League does not support intervention.

The President is way out on a limb, by himself.  Independent of legality, unilateral military intervention in these circumstances is extraordinarily imprudent, and it is hard to fathom that it is being considered by the man who based his case for the presidency in 2008 on his commitment to domestic and international legality, and on opposition to imprudent wars.

The administration seems to think that the costs of going forward in Syria are small because the planned strike will be “limited.”  But even assuming that a limited strike does not produce terrible second- and third-order consequences in the region, it would still be self-defeating because (although it is limited) it would be contrary to international and domestic opinion and (because it is limited) it would bring few benefits in terms of punishing Assad or enhancing Obama’s credibility.