There are many ways to approach the Syria crisis. You could look at it from a legal standpoint, seeing how international law would govern the situation. You could take a morality based approach and measure the costs of intervention versus the death and destruction that would result from inaction. Or you could ask how the interests of the United States line up with what is happening in Syria. I think a balanced approach is best in times like these, and we’ll start with the how a US intervention would jibe with the rule of law.
First of all, I’m going to make a bold claim and say that all discussions about international law are moot. Why? Because there is no international “law”. Of course there are treaties and conventions and protocols and declarations that many UN members have agreed and signed to. But they are not laws. Laws are something can be enforced on a regular basis, not only when the stars align just right or when politically expedient. For decades international laws and treaties pertaining to human rights have been violated in the most egregious manner by nations both big and small and it is in only the rarest of circumstances that any significant action is taken to punish those violators and to rectify the situation.
Hypothetically, let’s assume that a US attack would be in violation of international “law” as it currently exists. So what? Not to sound like a bad guy in a children’s cartoon, but who’s going to stop us? No one. If nobody is willing to stand up to a puny country like Syria that gasses its own people, then they’re sure as hell not going to try to punish a nation with the world’s best military merely for a few cruise missile strikes.
The conclusion here is that the most effective law in dealing with crimes against humanity is the M72 LAW rocket-launcher. And even that’s only good against lightly armored targets. So now we have to look at it from the perspective of domestic laws that are designed to curb the power of the executive and ultimately preserve our liberties as Americans.
The War Powers Act limits the ability of the executive to engage in hostilities to only situations where the US is under an imminent threat. Even so, the action must be completed in 60 days or be extended by an act of Congress. Presidents have been able to get around this by quibbling over the definition of “hostilities.” Semantic antics aside, the people who we may be dropping bombs on will agree that said bomb dropping constitutes as hostilities.
So given that the Syria threat is by no means imminent, it is clear that President Obama needs congressional approval is he wants this engagement to be legal under US law. Of course if he doesn’t, he’ll probably get away with it anyway. He’s done it before with Libya and Clinton did with Kosovo in the 1990s, so there is definitely a precedent he can follow. As with international “laws,” the lack of enforcement makes it very hard for us to take them seriously as anything more than guidelines.
The overall conclusion is that laws don’t really matter that much when it comes to the Syria problem. Everybody and their mother is ignoring them, so for all intents and purposes they don’t really exist except on paper. Obviously, this is something that probably should be addressed by both Congress and the international community. However there aren’t really any easy answers right now and the fact of the matter is that you go to war with the “laws” you have, not the ones you want. Given that, ignoring them completely is the best course of action at this point.
The next part will take a look at the morality of the situation on the ground as it pertains to what the US should do. Hopefully it will give us more answers than the legal situation does. Hopefully.