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August 30, 2013 9:50 AM Enforcing International Norms Without International Support

By Ed Kilgore

I’m generally willing to give President Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt, particularly on national security issues. But it is difficult to look on the direction he has taken over Syria this last week with anything other than dismay.

After yesterday’s defeat in the U.K. House of Commons of a government motion to authorize hypothetical British participation in a strike on Syria, the Obama administration all but stands alone, even as we hear that military action could occur as soon as tomorrow, when U.N. weapons inspectors leave the country. Maybe France or Turkey will express some support; maybe not. U.N. sanction is out of the question given Russian opposition. There’s mounting opposition in Congress, some of it based on the merits of military action, some on a desire to re-establish congressional warmaking powers, some on reflexive anti-Obama sentiment. Suffice it to say that 40% of House members have already signed onto letters opposing action without a congressional signoff, with roughly equal representation from both parties. The American public is not on board, either.

Because of this weak support at home and abroad, a military strike, if it occurs, is likely to be limited in scope and duration, which in turn would lead to assessments that it accomplished little or nothing, at a significant cost in civilian casualties and political capital. Had it occurred earlier—before all the public throat-clearing and case-building and coalition-assembling, most of it ineffectual—perhaps it might have been written off (in the U.S. at least) as a necessary if mainly symbolic gesture like Bill Clinton’s cruise missile strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998. Not now, it would seem.

Criticisms that the president is walking down the same path that George W. Bush pursued with respect to Iraq are clearly over-the-top. There’s no talk of a land war or regime change; the very absence of any publicly or even privately articulated long-term strategy is an indication there’s no “war plan.”

But the fact remains that the president is contemplating acts of war based on ambiguous evidence of the use of weapons that are at most only theoretically “weapons of mass destruction.” And the authority for action appears to be just as shaky, per this New York Times account of administration arguments:

Mr. Obama has referred, somewhat vaguely, to reinforcing “international norms,” or standards, against the use of chemical weapons, which are categorized as “weapons of mass destruction” even though they are far less powerful than nuclear or biological weapons.

Using military force to enforce “international norms” without international support is an inherently flawed concept. In the absence of any clear national security interest or self-defense motive for military action, it takes on the character of unilateralism in the guise of multilateralism, or to put it another way, a blow to collective security in the very name of collective security.

There is no good or easy way out of this dilemma, but instead of forging ahead to “save face” or “re-establish a blurred red line,” the president should acknowledge the British action and the growing bipartisan rebellion in Congress by taking a step back and rebuilding his case and his network of support domestically and internationally. A “weak” but deadly attack to make a symbolic point will just worsen the situation all around.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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