International Law

Philip Bobbitt on Syria

By Jack Goldsmith
Saturday, August 31, 2013, 5:11 AM

Philip Bobbitt has an interesting piece from yesterday that compares the different British and American outlooks on confrontation with Syria, and recommends a course of action in Washington.  He notes that the Brits conceptualized Syria primarily in humanitarian intervention terms, while the Americans are more focused on credibility and red lines, and he sketches the implications of these different outlooks.  Bobbitt discusses the importance of U.N. and formal congressional support to achieving American goals, but seems more sanguine than I (and others) that they will be sought:

[S]trictly adhering to US constitutional requirements will be crucial to building support for the administration’s policy. The constitutional case for unilateral executive action is far weaker here than it was regarding Libya or Kosovo.

Although the Obama administration doubtless feels some frustration with the pace of UN activity, it is hard to see how Washington can simply ignore the forum of the UN Security Council, even if we can anticipate Russian and Chinese vetoes there. Russia and China may wish to delay matters simply to embarrass the US, much as the French did in 2003, by hinting that a compromise resolution is possible, and disingenuously demanding the US offer language that can be negotiated.

In any case, the US will want to act within the law, domestically and internationally, and be seen clearly to do so, and this is bound to slow the momentum toward the use of force. Moreover, it is important that the US rely on the UN inspections — which are expected to conclude this weekend — because they will confer credibility on the process even if things are slowed down as a result. Parliament’s vote last night will not be decisive but it too is bound to give pause in Washington.

Bobbitt concludes:

It may be easier to punish than to deter but the point of doing so is less clear. It can’t simply be about the credibility of the US President: it never makes sense to do something that is not in the country’s interest because we are afraid of being reproached for having spoken rashly.

The legacy of Iraq will, I fear, ensure that US policy will remain tactical in nature. We still do not have a strategy that situates our policy with respect to the wars of sectarian annihilation that are creating a region-wide civil war. Despite what we are often told, conflicts of this kind are not going to go away, they are not precipitated by the US or her allies, and they are not made better or less awful by Western detachment.

It has not escaped attention, I surmise, that in 2003 the US also faced an Arab dictator who had gassed his own citizens and who had sought to activate a nuclear facility that the Israelis had destroyed from the air. Ten years later, no one is contemplating regime change this time.