The Case for Going to War in Syria That Obama's Ignoring

President Obama during his news conference at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Sept. 6 Photograph by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Images

Since 2005, the U.S. has been a signatory to a UN principle known as “Responsibility to Protect.” Each individual state, according to the principle, has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. If it can’t or won’t do so, the responsibility falls on the international community. The doctrine isn’t a treaty; it’s just a principle. Like any international agreement, it acquires force only through patient, slow application. Listen for it when Barack Obama addresses the nation on Tuesday night. You are not likely to hear it.

The UN was founded after a decade of aggressive cross-border wars and annexations. Sovereignty, the absolute right to action of a government on its own territory, became the UN’s governing principle. In 1948, the UN recognized the responsibility to prevent genocide, but this was easy for governments to slip around; they just avoid using the word “genocide,” no matter what they see. But the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999, at the end of a decade of slaughter within sovereign borders, left people who care about international law with a problem: How do you handle a moral and just intervention that is also technically illegal? The answer was a change in thinking, enshrined in the new principle of the responsibility to protect in 2005. Sovereignty, still the bedrock of international law, is not a right. It is a responsibility to the governed, shared between the sovereign and the international community.

One of the many problems with the Bush administration’s case for the war in Iraq was that it carelessly chucked together justifications. Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator who had gassed his own people. He was a threat to America, who had to be preemptively struck. In doing this, the administration confused Americans about what, exactly, our obligations are internationally. Are they about our own security? Or are they about creating and enforcing norms of behavior? Iraq has left Americans wary of the whole business, and under the impression that foreign policy is not about the slow, grinding repetition of principle, but just a single decision every time: to intervene or not.

But during our decade of interventions, the rest of the world was haltingly, inadequately learning what the “responsibility to protect” meant, and how it could actually work. A paper this July, co-authored by Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State, looked at how the UN principle had worked to secure the result of an election in Cote d’Ivoire in 2010, for example, after it was explicitly invoked by France, the Economic Community of West African States, and the African Union. The paper is cautious, unwilling to alienate anyone in Congress or the administration, but says, basically, that Washington is pretending that the responsibility to protect principle doesn’t exist.

Albright’s point is not to use the principle to justify military interventions everywhere, but to start asking questions about it, louder and more frequently. When should it first be invoked? Can the U.S. legally under the principle use its surveillance technology to monitor and verify atrocities? Congress should regularly conduct oversight hearings on whether America is fulfilling its responsibility to protect. The sum of the paper’s suggestions is to force a conversation. States fail. What then?

The problem in Syria is not going away. Syria will continue to get worse, and Syria will happen to other countries, within other sovereign borders. Admitting that a responsibility to protect exists doesn’t demand intervention, or an open-ended commitment to making every country a nice place to live. It would simply concede that sovereignty as an untouchable right, as we understood it after World War II, has not always worked.

The world will always look to the U.S. when these things happen. We should admit to ourselves that they are going to continue happening. And we are going to have to get better at figuring out what the answer is.

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