Russia Deal Doesn't Solve Obama's Ethical Dilemma

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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The apparent progress between the U.S. and Russia toward eliminating Syria's chemical weapons doesn't resolve one of the most intriguing questions of this conflict: What would the ethical choice be for President Barack Obama if he ultimately has to decide between respecting the will of Congress and protecting Syria civilians when no one else can?

Michael Ignatieff, a professor and writer who helped start the "Responsibility to Protect" movement, which holds that the international community has a duty to defend civilians when their own governments won't, tackled that question in the New York Times on Sept. 14. He argued that a United Nations Security Council resolution is always best, but the U.S. will sometimes have to act alone to stop atrocities.

That duty, however, comes with a catch, according to Ignatieff: If the U.S. can't obtain international legality through the Security Council, now or in the future, it should seek "democratic legitimacy" from Congress -- not because U.S. law requires it (which is unclear), but as an alternative check on the use of force. His argument ends with a plea: "Let's hope the people say yes."

So protecting civilians is an ethical obligation -- but one that's subservient to the greater ethical obligation of respecting the will of Congress. To which the best counter may be, have you seen the current Congress? A more partisan, parochial and cooperation-averse group is hard to imagine.

Leaving aside the practical problems with seeking congressional approval, Ignatieff's demand challenges the meaning of responsibility. A requirement that applies only to actions that are popular anyway isn't much of a responsibility at all. The very notion of a responsibility suggests an obligation to do something you'd rather not.

To be fair, the opposite argument -- that Obama, or any president who follows him, should pursue his responsibility to defend civilians without the approval of Congress -- isn't all that appetizing either. For most democracies, in fact, you'd be tempted to conclude that a leader's ethical obligation to serve his own citizens' wishes generally supersedes his obligation to help people in foreign lands.

But the U.S. is exceptional in many ways, not least because it can act when no other country can. As a Canadian living in Washington, I've gotten the sense that Americans enjoy that distinction, using it both to underline their greatness and to deflect comparisons on other topics -- health care comes to mind -- where they don't come off quite so favorably. Even the most isolationist American politicians don't advocate relinquishing the military advantage that makes the U.S. the indispensable nation.

Of course, the flip side of that power is that the world is uniquely affected by, and in some ways dependent on, American decisions.

That brings us back to the responsibility to protect, and whether Obama is right to honor that responsibility even if neither the Security Council nor Congress will endorse it.

If the Russian-brokered agreement fails to produce a satisfying resolution in Syria, and Obama is again forced to consider a military strike that Congress won't support, he will have to ignore one of two ethical obligations that define his office. The only question is which one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net