Wednesday, August 28, 2013

What is the fierce urgency of bombing now?

As you surely know, President Obama has all but pledged that he will order American armed forces to attack Syria soon. Media reports say that the strikes will begin as soon as tomorrow (Thursday, Aug. 29) or slightly later. 

According to a Wall Street Journal report, administration officials, speaking both by name and with indirect attribution, say the strikes will be "brief and limited" with no more than 50 targets inside Syria to be struck. 

White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change." That means that Syrian dictator Bashir Assad, who presumably ordered last week's chemical attacks against insurgent-held territory, is deliberately excluded from threat. 

So far no one in the administration has defined, therefore, exactly what is the reason for the upcoming strikes except to say in fairly vague language that Assad's regime must be punished for violating "international norms" against using chemical weapons. 

Terry Newell, founder of Leadership for a Responsible Society, has excellent questions about the impending Syria strike that have not been answered by the administration. The first question is to the point:
What justifies intervention in this particular case? The answer would seem obvious, but the United States does not intervene in all nations which commit atrocities against their own people. Why is this case different?
Indeed. The war has already claimed 100,000 lives. Why does the manner of death of the 350 or so killed last week make it imperative for America to go to war? So far, no one has explained just exactly what makes this attack fundamentally different except for the violation of "international norms." But as Mr. Newell points out, that happens, often with more lethality, all around the world (North Korea anyone?) and we do nothing. 

Why Syria, why now, and especially, to modify slightly a phrase of one of the president's own campaign speeches: What exactly is the fierce urgency of bombing now?

The UK's Guardian newspaper says that the justification is humanitarian. (Understand that in Britain, the legal authority for war is different than for the United States.) Nonetheless, I will, for argument's sake, stipulate that  bombing Assad's forces might be justified under humanitarian concerns. However, what the Guardian is conflating is the difference between moral justification of war and legal basis for it. They are not the same. 

Under just war theory, both just cause and rightful authority are required (among other elements). In Syria today there may be just cause for Western intervention, but so far there has been no rightful authority for it. 

Under US law this is drawn more sharply than under most European law. Since the dawn of the American republic, the Congress and the presidents have generally agreed that the president may order US forces into combat against another nation, solely on his own authority, if and only if there is: 

1. Imminent danger of attack from the other power, so imminent that time taken for Congressional deliberations would hinder defense against it, or, 

2. To protect actual threat against US citizens abroad, or to rescue them from actual danger.  

The Obama administration has not asserted that either of these conditions pertain in the case of Syria. 

Therefore, if Obama orders US strikes against Syria, no matter the moral justification of them, the United States will have failed the test of rightful authority, which rests in Congress alone. The war will be unjust because it will be illegal. 

If the cause is humanitarian for violations of "international norms," then the president is obligated to state what are the norms. There is in fact no international "norm" against chemical warfare. The revulsion western nations have had against chemical weapons since World War One has never resulted in treaties binding on non-signatory nations. 

Syria is not a party to either the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 or the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993. Neither of these treaties have ever been considered binding on non-signatories, unlike, say, conventions against piracy or slavery, which are acknowledged to be universally binding whether a country signed them or not. This is neither to defend Assad nor excuse the chemical attack. It is to point out that "violating norms" is an invention for going to war that has no precedent in US law or custom. 

Syria flatly poses no threat to the United States that justifies making war upon it. Furthermore, there is no threat to the Syrian people that is so imminent that no time dare be spent in Congressional deliberation to authorize the strikes, if strikes there should be. If there is such a threat, the president should explain why, with 100,000 already dead, a few more days of deliberation is unwarranted. After all, under the Constitution, the president can order the Congress back into session. If Obama wanted, he could have the Congress deliberating within 36 hours. 

There is, by the way, no UN Security Council resolution on this issue, nor any justification for the strikes to be found under the UN Charter. In fact, the UN Charter admonishes nations not to interfere or intervene in the domestic affairs of other nations, which is what the Syrian civil war is. If there is any international norm at play here, that is it. And that is the norm that the United States is about to violate.

We'd do well to remember the ancient proverb. "Decide in haste, repent in leisure." This is by any measure a true rush to war. Why all of a sudden the "fierce urgency of now" and not after Congressional authority?  

Well, perhaps here is a clue. According to the Wall Street Journal report, a "senior White House official" told CNN that, "Factors weighing into the timing of any action include a desire to get it done before the president leaves for Russia next week."

Draw your own conclusions about what that means.

Where is the United Methodist Church on this? The church's General Board of Church and Society already has multiple entries about today's commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, but only two entries total on Syria, neither since Aug. 5, long before this issue arose.

It used to be that the United Methodist Church stood against illegal, aggressive wars no matter who started them. Now, not so much. Silence from the board, silence from the bishops. And, I suppose, silence from the pulpits.

If US forces are to attack Syria, it cannot rightfully be done absent Congressional authorization. That would not make an attack wise by any means, but it would make it legal, and at the minimum that should be the starting point.

Update, Aug. 29: The ranking Democrat member of the House Judiciary Committee agrees.