11 Reasons the Obama Administration Should Present Its Case to the Security Council

by Dave Schuler on September 8, 2013

This morning Secretary of State John Kerry said that the Obama Administration has not ruled out seeking Security Council authorization for the use of force against Syria:

(Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday the United States did not rule out the possibility of returning to the United Nations Security Council to secure a resolution on Syria once U.N. inspectors complete their report.

Speaking at a news conference in Paris with his Qatari counterpart Khaled al-Attiya, Kerry said President Barack Obama had yet to make a decision on the issue.

Here are some of the reasons I think the Obama Administration should present its case for the use of military force against Syria to the United Nations Security Council, indeed, has an obligation to do so:

  1. “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them”
  2. We are signatories to a treaty which requires us to seek Security Council approval before using military force against another country other than in cases of self-defense.
  3. The “Responsibility to Protect” initiative is a new and evolving norm rather than a law and it has never been ratified by the Senate.
  4. Vladimir Putin has said that he could support military action aginst Syria if the U. S. could produce a convincing case.
  5. If there is enough time for Congressional approval, there is enough time to present a case to the Security Council.
  6. A convincing case could attract support from other countries.
  7. Russia’s blocking of action following the presentation of a convincing case would isolate Russia.
  8. Attacking Syria without presenting a convincing case would isolate the United States.
  9. Outrage is not a sufficient cause for attacking another country. At the very least there should be proof beyond reasonable doubt that the Assad regime was responsible for the use of chemical weapons against civilians.
  10. There is reason to be skeptical about the Obama Administration’s claims.
  11. The downside risks of attacking Syria and then having incontrovertible evidence that the rebels were responsible for the use of chemical weapons (and, especially, that the U. S. was aware of it) would be real and substantial.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

jan September 8, 2013 at 8:48 am

All those reasons have merit, except #4, as there will be no amount of evidence for Putin to support military action. This is just a game of words to make him look reasonable, in comparison to his U.S. counterpart.

IMO, #11 is the most vital. So much of the so-called evidence is considered classified, and consequently presented through reassurances from governmental representatives. Also, the stats regarding the number of moderates versus Islamists fighting against Assad is again and again disputed by those on the ground. A couple of years ago, the figures given by Kerry may have been true. But, as the U.S.’s primary intervention has been threatening words, the number of moderates has been degraded, and the opposition to Assad has now been significantly infiltrated by radicals. Supposedly, this is especially true in northern Syria.

steve September 8, 2013 at 9:11 am

Agreed. I continue to think there is a good moral case for this action, but it is illegal. We need the authority to act. If no one else cares enough to participate, I dont think we should do it alone.

Steve

jan September 8, 2013 at 9:54 am

Steve,

I don’t see how morality can be so selectively applied. The degree of death and man’s inhumanity to man has been staggering in Libya for all these years. That’s why such a great number of people have fled — an estimated 2 million, with an overall 4 million ‘displaced’ by long term violence.

Nontheless, throughout this terror, we have stood down and only rained words of dismay on Assad. At the same time we fully were aware of Assad’s vast chemical stockpiles — considered to be the largest in all 3rd world countries. And, still we didn’t seem to care enough to, in a timely manner, arm moderates when they could be reasonably identified as moderates.

Now, all of sudden, symbolic red lines have been crossed, presidential words have become militant, and the issue of morality seeps into the equation? And, the trigger for such a morality dustup has been murky, hyperbolic, and unsubstantiated evidence! Why might that seem just a tad hypocritical, if not down right disingenuous, considering that before this disputed sarin gas attack, 110,000 deaths wasn’t enough to jar our conscience, and consequently our will into some kind of alternative pre-military-strike kind of action?

michael reynolds September 8, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Jan:

and only rained words of dismay

I like that phrase. I may well steal it.

It’s not hypocritical to respond when we can and avoid responding when we cannot. To insist that we have to be completely consistent is to insist that we cease interacting with the world.

Steve and Dave:
I must have missed the part where the opinion of the UN Security Council acquired the force of law as regards American actions. Were we taken over by blue helmets when I wasn’t looking? Surely the tinfoil hat brigade would have alerted us.

It’s lovely to have support, but I reject the idea that the US cannot act unilaterally if we conclude that such an action is necessary.

It is by the way ridiculous to believe the Russians are playing straight here. Russian intelligence must have long since turned Syrian security to Swiss cheese. They know by now what happened. They very likely have copies of the orders and the after action reports. If there existed any evidence that some magical sarin elf did this rather than the Syrians, they would have proof.

steve September 8, 2013 at 1:57 pm

“Now, all of sudden, symbolic red lines have been crossed”

Nope. They actually used chemical weapons. They used them on civilians. With or without any line of any color, that is an immoral act. I have gone through this before I think. Out of all the horrors of WWI (I hope you have read some military history, or Waugh or at least the poetry of that age), the only one they decided to ban was chemical weapons. Between my military and my trauma experience I have seen people die in lots of awful ways, and I know that I have never experienced anything like the horrors of WWI trench warfare. If chemical weapons were awful enough to scare them, and awful enough that in WWII they honored the agreements to not use them, I am impressed.

Michael- Of course we can, it just wont be legal. I dont really see anyone showing up to jail us, so we can do it if we want, but I think it is wrong. I think we ought to have at least enough humility to realize that if we are all alone, we just might be wrong.

Steve

jan September 8, 2013 at 4:35 pm

I like that phrase. I may well steal it.

The phrase is free, Michael. I like some of your’s as well.

It’s not hypocritical to respond when we can and avoid responding when we cannot.

That’s taking a slice of the Serenity Prayer — something I quietly swirl around my head in times of need or indecision.

PD Shaw September 8, 2013 at 7:05 pm

@steve, I think the WWII story is quite mixed. The U.S. did not sign the Geneva Protocol of 1925, prohibiting poisonous gasses, until 1975. The U.K. planned to use poison gas to drench the cities of the Ruhr if things got worse (and the U.S. was producing it for that contingency). The Italians used mustard gas in the invasion of Ethiopia. Japan did not sign the 1925 protocol until 1970 and used poisonous gass against China. Germany developed Sarin to use during WWII, and probably used against the Soviets in Crimea. Rev. Sensing has posted an interview in which Goering said that the Germans didn’t use gas because the Allies would have retaliated, and the Germans were dependent on horses that would be particularly vulnerable.

I am not sure I completely buy into Goering’s story, but I don’t think poison gas has ever been used against a country with the capability of retaliating with poison gas since WWI. It’s used in counter-insurgencies and invasions of less technologically savvy countries (if I can count the Soviets as not having serious chemical weapons capabilities in WWII) Perhaps its use is limited to relatively “backwards” civilizations, the British against Iraq in the 1920s and Iraq against the Kurds in the 1980s.

But I also think the cost-benefit analysis is such that most countries don’t find chemicals useful. They were developed for trench warfare, and were not successful, and I think countries with more developed weapons capabilities have good, if not better, alternatives (tanks, airplanes, missiles, nukes). Chemical warfare in WWI did adversely effect troop morale and contributed to shellshock. Since the international agreements by and large curtail war between states and not state action against its own citizens, I’ve cynically argued elsewhere that the laws that arose after WWI appear to have been intended to make sure nations could find the quality and quantity of troops to fight a war.

PD Shaw September 8, 2013 at 7:18 pm

@michael, I’m not the biggest U.N. booster, but this would be the first time the U.S. has taken military action without an imminent self-defense rationale or some fig leaf of U.N. support. I think this is what is bothering a lot of people — there may be little risk from a few days of shelling of Syria. But it makes it more difficult for people to argue against future military action proposed by some future President, if there are fewer legal or principled objections that can be made.

Andy September 8, 2013 at 7:29 pm

There is another potential reason: Does President Obama want to be remembered as the President who, unlike GW Bush, did not seek UN authorization and, unlike GW Bush, believed he did not need Congressional authorization to attack another country?

michael reynolds September 8, 2013 at 8:23 pm

PD: Did we have UN approval for Vietnam or Granada or Somalia or Panama? I doubt it.

If we’re talking legality there must of necessity be law, and that law to be valid must have been passed by our Congress. Has any such law been passed that subordinates US actions to the UN? Maybe, but if so I missed it.

I think what’s happened is that we’ve pretended (when it suited us) that the UN had some force of law. But I don’t think it really does.

Dave Schuler September 9, 2013 at 6:28 am

I must have missed the part where the opinion of the UN Security Council acquired the force of law as regards American actions.

It’s not surprising that you missed it since it was before you were born. We signed and the Senate ratified a treaty more than 60 years ago that said that the Security Council had to authorize the use of force other than in cases of self-defense.

Over that 60 years we’ve used force a lot but in every instance over that period we had at least some pretext of law—present or past Security Council resolution, Congressional authorization, self-defense, NATO support. As of today none of those would be the case if we attacked Syria.

Dave Schuler September 9, 2013 at 6:40 am

Vietnam had Congressional authorization, Granada was argued as self-defense, Somalia had United Nations Security Council Resolution 794, The grounds for the invasion of Panama included self-defense (protecting American citizens and interests in Panama) and the Torrijos–Carter Treaties. It also received Congressional authorization.

Just in case you want to claim hypocrisy on my part, I opposed all of those interventions along much the same lines as I oppose attacking Syria. However, all of them plus bombing Serbia and our two attacks on Libya had significantly stronger grounds than attacking Syria. In other words, somebody can have supported every use of force by the U. S. over the period of the last 60 years and still oppose attacking Syria on legal grounds.

PD Shaw September 9, 2013 at 7:06 am

Vietnam was based upon a collective self-defense claim.

Kosovo is the most difficult to justify under international law.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/opinion/syria-is-not-kosovo.html?_r=0

CStanley September 9, 2013 at 8:32 am

I oppose an attack by the US on Syria, but at the same time I find the question of legality pretty murky. The UN Security Council, and indeed the UN as a while, is in need or serious reform or abolishment.

I oppose the action because there is no imminent threat to us. But if there were, and Russia still wanted to veto UN authorization of a strike, what then? The process is untenable, because the members of the council put self interests above the interest of peace and stability.

But….legitimacy does matter. If not the UN, there has to be some form of reasonable consensus among our allies and the other regional powers affected by this situation. Also, even though I don’t doubt that Russia would veto, I don’t think Obama gets to preemptively avoid the vote on the basis of knowing that will happen. The process is faulty, but the best way to deal with it would be to take the matter before the council with strong international support, and then isolate Russia for failing to go along with the rest of the civilized world. By not getting to that step, Putin gets the upper hand and can instead isolate us for going rogue.

Russia appears to be strengthening its hand in the Middle East and this point of legitimacy is going to be pivotal, IMO.

CStanley September 9, 2013 at 8:34 am

Of course when I say “take the matter to the council”, my strong preference would be to bring a vote on a non-military response.

PD Shaw September 9, 2013 at 8:50 am

@CStanly, I’ve seen arguments that the matter should be taken to the entire U.N. General Assembly. Reasons: (1) This would create a worldwide consensus on whether Syria violated any international law or norm, and the appropriate response; (2) It highlights Russia’s veto as the problem; (3) It provides a potential, though controversial, legal justification for use of force, in the face of the Security Council’s inability to act.

As I see it, the problem with this approach is (a) its not clear to me that the U.S would win this vote either; I suspect a lot of third world countries are suspicious of what they see as imperial intervention in internal affairs; (b) Israel; I suspect that the reason the U.S. vetoes so many Sec. Council resolutions is that they have the word Zionist in them and this would create a precedent to undermine its own use of vetoes.

CStanley September 9, 2013 at 10:28 am

Interesting, PD. It does seem likely, or at least highly possuble, that the consensus is not with us on attacking. All the more reason that a similar path would make sense for seeking a nonmilitary approach (condemnation, and an increase of humanitarian effort for the refugees, for instance.)

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