In the most recent print edition of Le Zadig, an anonymous author contributed an article expressing what is possibly a controversial opinion on our rather left-leaning campus: That Donald Trump was right in his decision to fire 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian air base following allegations that the Assad regime was responsible for the chemical attacks that occurred in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, outside of Idlib.
By Sebastian Torero
There are several points of this article I do not aim to contravene. The author is careful to point out that there is disagreement as to whether or not Assad is responsible, but also that his guilt is the most likely scenario. Russian claims that a Syrian air strike destroying a rebel stronghold holding the chemical nerve agent sarin was responsible does not hold up to scrutiny. I believe the author is correct in his or her claim that it is likely that forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad are responsible for the horrifying attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
No, what I want to address is whether or not it is hypocritical to condemn the United States for its actions while at the same time bemoaning a lack of action by the international community to aid the Syrian people.
First, there is the question of international law. The United States’ air strike against the Assad regime is considered by most experts to be a breach of international law. So was the chemical attack, so is the murder of civilians daily by the Assad regime and its foreign allies. The writer argues that that if we hold the United States to the standards of international law, idealistic standards that have no bearing in the actual system of international relations, then we are asking America to enter this fight with a hand tied behind its back when everyone else is punching with brass knuckles on.
Simply because other actors within this conflict have broken international law does not give America the right to do so. The violations of the law by some does not mean those who seek justice for such actions as a chemical attack on civilians can resort to illegal means. When America decided to torture detainees as part of its War on Terror, we turned into the monsters our enemies sought to make us. Never mind that torture is ineffective and prevented no further attacks. It was a brutal act condemned to the highest degree by international law, and in a conflict our leaders designated upon moral lines, once America decided to torture, its claim of the moral high ground was seriously weakened. If our enemies turn us to lawbreakers, perhaps even to evil, in the event that we defeat them, can we truly claim victory?
Just because others are doing it does not give us the right. Why should we hold ourselves to different standards than Syria and Russia and Iran in this conflict? Because America is supposed to hold itself to different standards. If we truly promote values of international peace and security, we must hold ourselves to different values.
The second point the author makes concerning international law is that it is an idealistic system with no bearing on actual international relations. Therefore, it makes no sense to argue a state is wrong simply because it violates international law. There is strong criticism to be made about the international legal system’s lack of strong enforcement. And unlike domestic law, international law does not concern people under a government, but mainly sovereign states. There is certainly a contradiction between the idea of an international legal order and the concept of state sovereignty, where a country has total control of its policies, especially within its own borders. While the latter idea has started to fall out of fashion in some regards, it is still the basis of our international system.
So does international law matter? The author writes that no genocide or crime against humanity has ever been prevented by the existence of documents like the UN Charter, the Genocide Convention, the Rome Statute, or the existence of the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court. Firstly, this is impossible to prove; we cannot know for sure if a leader has ever made a decision after considering the international legal consequences of their choices. But we do know that genocides and crimes against humanity have been committed since World War II, and the international community has done little to stop these atrocities. From Cambodia to Bosnia, from Iraqi Kurdistan to Rwanda to Sudan, where was international law? It is true that some of the perpetrators of these acts were brought to justice, but many were not.
In Chicago last year, 762 people were murdered. Over 4,000 people were victims of gun violence, and many of the guns used in those shootings wound up in the hands of shooters illegally. Would we say that, because the law against murder is clearly not respected by many Chicagoans, that its gun laws, some of the strictest in the country, are routinely violated, they have no legal basis?
What about enforcement? The murder clearance rate for the Chicago Police Department–that being the amount of murders where an arrest is made or a suspect who cannot be apprehended is identified–has been somewhere under 30% for the last three years (the national average is closer to 60%). If you kill someone in Chicago, you are more likely to get away with it than not. So because so many people are killed, because so many people get these guns illegally, and because it is so poorly enforced, the solution is to forget the law? Should we allow the police more leeway, maybe? Get rid of due process, allow them to bash down doors, stop-and-frisk, arrest without charge, torture, until the legal order is enforced over the population?
Nobody would say yes to that. But that is the logic one uses when saying that international law is invalid because it is disrespected and poorly enforced. There is certainly a difference between domestic law in the United States and the international legal order, but both are valid and both serve a purpose. At the end of the day, international law enshrines many of the rights for civilians this author clearly cherishes, rights I want protected as well. But if we fall into the trap of disregarding international law, then those rights can be neglected with impunity.
On another legal note, a strong case can be made that this airstrike was also illegal under American law. Congress has all but given up its constitutional power to declare war, and its constitutional mandate to check the executive on such matters. This has been a decades-long process, beginning with the arrival of nuclear weaponry, the expansion of the president’s ability to use force during the Cold War, and the broad powers granted following 9/11. It is certainly a troubling affair in American politics. But the fact that the president glibly ordered for missiles be fired at a sovereign state as a digestif is horrifying. These were certainly not the only bombs America has dropped on Syria. President Obama dropped 12,000 in the war against ISIS. But this action should disturb the world and Americans. Obama at least made some recognition that Congress was supposed to play a role. These missiles were fired as the cake was being finished from a resort in Florida.
Then again, I have read A Problem From Hell. This book is well-known amongst advocates for humanitarian intervention, written by Samantha Power. Power is a former journalist, ambassador, and served as a member of the National Security Council under President Obama. Her book is a compelling appeal that the United States do more to make its cries of “Never again” into a reality. Power and Obama frequently butted heads on involvement in Syria. I am sickened by Assad’s attacks on civilians, by the devastation of this war upon innocent people.
I too want someone to pay for this. I am not unmoved by the images of children lying dead as if still in dream, suffocated by the air around them. But I simply don’t believe that this action was well thought-out or helpful.
Now, you will notice my stance is not from the anti-war “left” that sees America as a demon in the international system, a devil in disguise. That is because I simply don’t believe that to be the case. I believe that the values America stands for are better than those of the Russian or Syrian regimes. America has failed time and time again to uphold those values, both at home and abroad. But it is those values that pull me to some common ground with the author to whom I am responding. Just like them, I want to see Assad punished for his brutality. But I am a war-weary American. Like most of my country, I don’t want another war in the Middle East. And I must ask myself, how many times can we fall into this same mess before we realize American firepower will not fix the Middle East, and that it is occasionally making things worse?
American Marines entered Beirut in the hopes of bringing peace to a country torn by civil war. In 1983, the U.S. Marine barracks were bombed, killing over 200 Americans. In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq with the goal of removing a genocidal dictator who we claimed had weapons of mass destruction. Over a decade later, Iraqi sovereignty is slowly being regained from a terrorist organization and the country remains a failed state. In 2011, we led NATO allies in airstrikes carried out to help rebels remove a brutally repressive dictator. All we have to show is a country that is more of a desert anarchy for warring tribes than a state. Bashar al-Assad is a monster, but he is in a garden of beasts. His removal at the moment guarantees nothing in terms of a better Syria. And it’s not like Trump wants to remove Assad, or really even punish him.
This was the act of an impulsive man who has no clear strategy, an action of a schizophrenic administration that stands for nothing except some misconceived notion of “winning”.
I don’t disregard this author’s desire to help the people of Syria, in fact I share it. But Donald Trump and his administration are not concerned with the humanitarian crisis that the Syrian civil war has created. If they were, they would accept refugees instead of trying to ban them, and they would encourage the European Union to do the same. They would increase the amount of aid given to the UNHCR and other organizations. They wouldn’t be gutting the State Department and reducing the amount of money given to USAID. This was not a humanitarian act. It was an act of aggression, and an act that was not well thought-out at all. This attack likely did not deter Assad; planes were flying from the air base the following day. So what if Assad uses chemical weapons again? Are we willing to strike him? The Syrian army? Are we willing to go to war with Iran and Russia over this? Can we claim that such a path would result in anything but death and misery for the Syrian people caught in the middle?
If America is acting on behalf of the international community when it strikes Assad, then it should consult the international community. If Donald Trump is acting on the behalf of the American people when striking at a brutal regime, then he should follow the Constitution and have Congress authorize the use of force. If America is concerned with the humanitarian crisis, we should accept refugees, we should actually enact policies to help human beings. And if America wants to do something about Syria, it should be done with caution, with thought, before we thrust ourselves once again into the quagmire that is intervention in the Middle East. There are no good solutions to Syrian conflict, only better or worse poor ones. I cannot believe that it is a good idea in such a complicated issue for Donald Trump to fire missiles with abandon. This is not the hypocrisy of some hippy leftist. It is the desperate cry of an American that simply wants thought to precede action.