Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator who has been willing to wreak violence on his own people in order to keep his grip on power. The missile attack unleashed by Donald Trump, accompanied by our French and British allies, however, is both reckless and lawless.
Whatever the stated rationale for the airstrikes on Homs and Damascus (ostensibly to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons), the bottom line is that they are a violation of international law and of our own Constitution, and moves the United States a step closer to direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
The attack demonstrates that the United States still considers itself to be not simply the indispensable nation but a global policeman above the law. With the president claiming the right to use military force anywhere without congressional authorization—and Congress so supine that, with few honorable exceptions, it does not object—and the foreign-policy establishment across the board claiming the right to use force in direct, open, and arrogant violation of international law, we have reached the point where the US president acts as cop, judge, jury, and executioner.
With this president, of course, illegality has become the norm. Trump and our allies unleashed the attack even as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was traveling to Syria to provide an independent, authoritative investigation of the attack on Douma and determine whether or not in fact chemical weapons were used, and if so, by whom. Trump preferred, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, sentence first, verdict after.
To protect the Syrian people from the horrors of alleged chemical-weapons use, we unleash missiles and bombs on the Syrian people. To enforce an alleged—and, if true, grotesque—violation of the international chemical-weapons ban, we trample the international ban on wars of aggression. Yes, yes, Trump says the mission was “perfect,” and called it—in an absurd echo of George W. Bush’s infamous 2003 pronouncement about the Iraq War—“mission accomplished.” The media feature the tactical questions of how and what and when. We hear all the usual nonsense about smart weapons, surgical bombing.
This raid—celebrated by neocons and their liberal interventionist allies alike—derives from America’s unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the heady liberal interventionists decided, in Madeleine Albright’s words, that the United States was the “indispensable nation,” that we could act because “we stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” From that came the arrogant assumption that the United States could scorn the same international laws that it had championed at Nuremberg after World War II.
Former State Department official Anne Marie Slaughter spoke for the bipartisan consensus when she tweeted, “I believe that the US, UK & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons…. [even] if it is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.”
We have arrogated to ourselves the right to attack other sovereign countries when they offend our judgments of proper behavior—about human rights, against civil war on the European continent, against chemical weapons. Of course, we do not attack our allies such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen, or Israel in Gaza for engaging in such activities.
The result ought to alarm every American. The United States now claims the right to wage preemptive war on the order of the president—a claim acted on by one of the most liberal of presidents, Barack Obama, as well as by one of the most buffoonish, Donald Trump.
Seeing growing violence in Syria—sparked by revolt generated by Assad’s brutal reign—Obama decided that like Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Assad must go. Even though Assad posed no threat to the United States, Obama dispatched the CIA and Special Forces to train and arm the insurgency against Assad. But many of those arms, ostensibly intended for “democratic” rebel forces, ended up in the hands of ISIS and other Islamist terror groups. The conflicts between Assad, Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turks, and Persians grew more complex. Iran and Russia came to the aid of a sovereign head of state that the United States, in conjunction with its Gulf “allies,” had been waging aggressive war to topple.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed; millions uprooted. The United States, however, neither had a plan nor the intention of putting together the kind of force needed to overthrow Assad, much less rebuild some kind of a stable government once he was gone. We were unwilling to spend the money or the lives needed to do that. So all we have done is add to the violence.
International law prohibits preemptive wars and military attacks—covert or overt, limited or massive—against a nation that poses no imminent threat. Some defenders of Trump’s air strikes invoke the “right to protect,” saying that we must draw a line against the use of chemical weapons. But authority to exercise the right to protect can only come from the United Nations. If it can be claimed by any nation or group of nations, then it simply too easily becomes a fig leaf for illegal intervention.
In this situation, instead of joining a collective global outcry against the Syrian regime and forging a consensus against the Russian and Chinese governments’ use of the UN veto to block international action to enforce the law, with the April 13 air strikes Washington has reinforced fears in developing countries about our own predilection for lawless intervention.
The use of chemical weapons is a horror—but so is the use of barrel bombs and other conventional weapons, such as the US-supplied ones Saudi Arabia is using against Yemeni civilians. War is hell. The United States and its allies should be pressing the case in the UN for action against the use of chemical weapons. If Russia and China exercise their veto, we should continue to build an international consensus and outcry and condemn those who turn their back. By bombing Damascus, we aren’t contributing to peace, we are adding to the violence visited on the Syrian people.
It is truly regrettable that this kind of action will likely be popular, lifting the president’s approval ratings. It will gain support on both sides of the aisle. This is all the more reason why the courage of Senators Tim Kaine, Rand Paul, Chris Murphy, and Bernie Sanders, and Representatives Ro Khanna, Tulsi Gabbard, Barbara Lee, Justin Amash, and Thomas Massie, as well as members of the Progressive Caucus—who have spoken against these attacks while calling for congressional authority and executive accountability—is so important.