An important catch via the Standard from foreign-policy genius Samantha Power, who wondered aloud on Friday why Iran isn’t burning with shame that their boy Assad gassed Syrians. (The White House’s “smart power” braintrust has convinced itself that because Saddam used gas against Iran in the 1980s, Iranian leaders might object for moral reasons to using it against their Sunni enemies today.) The key bit starts at the beginning of the clip and runs for about two minutes.
What makes this important isn’t that she’s endorsing an attack which she seems to think is illegal; we crossed that Rubicon long ago with O, who ordered an attack on Libya that his own lawyers thought was legally dubious. What makes it important, and what may end up becoming the enduring precedent from this goony fiasco, is that the lefty establishment has dropped any pretense that the endorsement of the UN Security Council is some essential prerequisite to war. Here’s Power:
“Nobody has tried harder than this administration to work through the security council over two and a half years. As you’re well aware of, of course, even modest humanitarian and political measures have been rejected by Russia in New York. We’ve had three vetoes put forward–three resolutions put forward, all of which have been vetoed by Russia. And on chemical weapons, specifically, and perhaps most heart breakingly, even on the day of August 21, when those ghastly images were broadcast all around the world, we couldn’t even get a press release out of the security council condemning generically use of chemical weapons.”
Turns out the UN isn’t a hivemind collectively determining what’s in the world’s best interest, as the left sometimes pretends when a Republican president needs thwarting (part of the “global test,” as a wise man once called it), it’s merely a lever for its constituents to protect their own selfish national interests. Presidents have ignored it before, of course, but as the NYT notes today, typically they claim national self-defense when doing so. What’s unique about O’s Syria adventure is that he and his staff not only aren’t claiming that, they’re claiming that a unilateral strike can qualify as legal under international law even if the UN hasn’t signed off:
On another level, the proposed strike is unlike anything that has come before — an attack inside the territory of a sovereign country, without its consent, without a self-defense rationale and without the authorization of the United Nations Security Council or even the participation of a multilateral treaty alliance like NATO, and for the purpose of punishing an alleged war crime that has already occurred rather than preventing an imminent disaster…
[Former OLC chief Jack] Goldsmith said that in the Kosovo campaign, the Clinton administration shied away from arguing that it was consistent with international law to carry out a military attack not authorized by the Security Council purely for humanitarian reasons. Its fear was that such a doctrine could be misused by other nations, loosening constraints on war…
[White House counsel Kathryn] Ruemmler said that while an attack on Syria “may not fit under a traditionally recognized legal basis under international law,” the administration believed that given the novel factors and circumstances, such an action would nevertheless be “justified and legitimate under international law” and so not prohibited.
It’s perfectly legal to ignore the UN and attack, even if it’s not in self-defense, if you have a good enough reason. Samantha Power’s obviously reluctant to make that argument, which makes sense: What sort of ambassador to the UN would want to emphasize that the UN’s sanction isn’t important anymore? But the rest of the White House evidently has no problem with it, and Power herself seems unconcerned about the finer legal points vis-a-vis the alleged moral cause of avenging gassed Syrians. You can imagine how this standard will play in the years ahead. The next time a president wants to ignore the Security Council, he’ll simply emphasize the humanitarian component of the mission (there’s always a humanitarian component) and some sort of international “norm” that needs enforcing. O’s logic towards Assad would have applied even more robustly to attacking Saddam over the Security Council’s objections, after all. No wonder Ban Ki-Moon sounds nervous.
Because more unilateralism in the future is now likely, if not inevitable, you’re going to see two forms of pushback from internationalists (which includes the American left once the GOP is back in the White House). One: Instead of insisting that Security Council approval is key, they’ll begin to insist that the approval of western members of the Security Council is the touchstone for action. Russia and China are hopeless but there needs to remain some sort of “global test” the next time a Republican cowboy leads the war charge. If Britain and France say no, then it’s a no. Two: They’ll push harder to expand the permanent membership of the Security Council, something that’s been talked about for ages but will gain new urgency now. Add India, Brazil, and a few other rising powers and you’ll restore some legitimacy to the Council at least insofar as being able to say that it’s more representative of global interests. But of course, that would only make it harder to get approval for military strikes; the more nations you add, the more likely it is that one of them will have a national interest with which western military action conflicts. The only way out of that is to rescind the right of permanent members to unilaterally veto international action and move to a simple majority Council vote instead, but I doubt any current member will go for that (including the U.S., which uses its veto to protect Israel from its enemies). All that’s left is more stalemate, which means the pressure to act unilaterally will become even greater. That’s where we’re headed, I think.