CANBERRA – For a U.S. president who first gained prominence for his gift with words, Barack Obama can be remarkably loose with his language no matter how grave the context and potential consequences. His policy conundrum on Syria stems from a casual drawing of a red line at a press conference last year if chemical weapons were used. Now, to avoid red faces — also known as loss of presidential and national credibility — the red line ultimatum requires a demonstration of U.S. military power robust enough to avoid being mocked but not so sharp as to tip the scales decisively against the Assad regime. This is what passes for strategy and deep thinking in Washington today.
Another example of inappropriate language by a commander in chief was that Washington wants to fire a shot across the bow in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons. But a shot across the bow is always restricted to a warning shot that deliberately avoids hitting the target ship.
A third example is the need to send a message to Assad and other users of biochemical weapons that such barbarity will not be tolerated. There are three problems with this: the choice of communication tools, how the message is read by the intended recipient and how it is decoded by the vast global audience.
On the first point, possibly the best riposte came from a man at a town hall meeting in Ohio. The BBC’s Mark Mardell reports that he said: “What are cruise missiles going to do but kill people? If he wants to send a message, text him.” Were that the president and Congress possessed such clarity of vision on purpose and the link between goal and action.
On the second, the biggest worry is that many regimes will conclude the only way to ward off a unilateral U.S. attack rooted in arrogance of power is to get nuclear weapons. The logic of this is false — deterrence doesn’t quite work that way — but the political psychology could prove compelling for some regimes.
The argument was first raised by Chinese officials after NATO bombed Serbia in 1999: Would you have attacked Slobodan Milosevic if he had the bomb, they asked? The argument firmed in 2003 with the illegal war of aggression on Iraq that had been disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction by the United Nations (not that Washington ever credited the U.N. for the stellar achievement), alongside a hands-off policy toward North Korea which did have the bomb (but not oil). Will a Franco-U.S. air strike on Syria harden or soften Iranian interest in the bomb?
To the wider global audience, finally, there are also two unintended but unmistakable messages being sent. For one, all the talk of governments reflecting popular will is hollow, empty rhetoric. In 2003, both Western and other publics strongly opposed the war but too many journalists, whose professional training and ethics should make them skeptical rather than credulous of unsubstantiated official press releases and deep background briefings, were seduced by government spin, propaganda and misinformation.
The people were proved right. That same broken record is playing on the world’s airwaves. Britain’s parliament narrowly reflected broad popular opposition to the war. France is keen on military action in defiance of its own people. Even in the U.S., despite allegations of chemical weapons use by the regime, public support for U.S. military strikes is restricted to between 20-29 percent in different polls.
Thus once again the people have a firmer and surer grasp of the underlying reality than their governments. Yet the administration is determined to send its muddled message to Damascus. If Congress does give it the green light, what exactly is the message on democratic consent that is being sent across the world? That this is a shot across the bows of democratic ships of state?
For another, Washington is happy to trash international law because it can. Just as in Iraq in 2003, any attack on Syria without Security Council sanction would be an exercise of raw American power in defiance of lawful international authority.
In Kosovo in 1999 and in the Syria debate today, many fall back into the comforting distinction between legality and legitimacy. In some contexts, that distinction is real: A Nelson Mandela challenging the legal system of apartheid in South Africa could indeed claim the mantle of legitimacy and remain proud of a firm moral compass.
But it’s harder to claim legitimacy for circumventing U.N. paralysis produced by the very rules you yourself insist on freezing. If Britain, France and the U.S. were leading a campaign to rid the veto in the Security Council, they could claim legitimacy for escaping the stalemate produced by Chinese and Russian vetoes. In fact Washington has used the veto more often than China and Russia combined since the end of the Cold War.
Consider an analogy, although the argument would have resonated better before the last Ashes series between Australia and England. The Indian cricket board has stubbornly refused to use technology to rectify glaring umpiring errors. Suppose India were to lose a match and a series as a result of an absolute shocker of an umpiring decision. There would be little sympathy for any howls of outrage from the Indian board. Yet that is what the Western permanent members of the Security Council demand in seeking to escape the veto-imposed impasse while clinging tenaciously to their own veto right.
Moreover, when Mandela took on apartheid, he was prepared to and did pay a pretty heavy personal price. Many fine individuals throughout history have refused to surrender their conscience to their kings and been imprisoned or executed. They deserve profound respect for their courage and conviction. Western humanitarian warriors who rain death and destruction in violation of international law draw on international legitimacy as a strategy for escaping any legal consequences and personal accountability. To be credible, leaders who elevate unilateral imprimaturs of legitimacy above international law need to be in the dock at The Hague.
Should Obama gain congressional authorization, he will enjoy domestic legitimacy. The just-concluded Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg shows that he will still lack international legitimacy.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University