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What are our obligations toward Syria? Are we exceptional or responsible?

People on the streets of Damascus
People on the streets of Damascus Photo: Charles Fred / Charles Fred

As we approach the Congressional vote on military intervention in Syria, asking what our response can and should be, instead of military intervention, and how the U.S. thinks of its role in the world seems critical. If we believe that we have a role to play in enhancing the security of others, what action might that lead to? In this guest post Doug Bennett addresses these questions. I have posted this guest post by Doug here and at the Shared Security website. - Lucy

As Syria holds our attention, the biggest question for me, and I hope for you, is about the United States. As the United States asserts that Syria’s President Assad has responsibilities to his own people, we should be asking what are our responsibilities to other countries?

Syrian President Assad used poison gas against citizens of his own country: that’s the charge. It is an unproven allegation that it was the Assad regime that used the gas. There has not been any public consideration of the evidence, and we all remember (don’t we?) that the allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq turned out be bogus.

The case for intervention is that there are limits to what a leader (whether a despot or democratically elected) can do towards his own people.  A leader has obligations and responsibilities, the argument goes, and other countries can and should enforce these responsibilities, once breached.  Use of poison gas is a crime against humanity, and no one should be allowed to do that. 

There are those who reject this idea in the name of sovereignty. Each country is its own sovereign world, they say, and no other country should think it has the right, let alone the responsibility, to intervene in the affairs of any other country.  What happens in Syria is Syria’s business, something for Syrians to sort out. Those from Turkey or Russia, Israel or the United States should butt out. 

Syria by Eric BarfoedThese are starkly opposed views of international affairs. One claims nation states are each their own world, with no rights or responsibilities to anyone else. The other claims that there are at least some international norms or rules that must not be broken. If a country breaks them, other countries can punish them. This second view says there are international norms, international laws, and international organizations that nation states should respect, and to which they should be held accountable. The first view says that the international scene is lawless and normless, a terrain where the strong rule and might makes right. 

Which is our view? I believe that there are and should be international norms, and that Assad may well have broken an important one. But what’s the view of the United States government?

On the one hand, the U.S. seems indeed to be saying that Assad broke an international norm and should be punished. But on the other hand, the U.S. also seems to be saying that the U.S. should make up its own mind about what to do about this. We seem to be presuming we can and should do as we please towards Assad, denying that we have any responsibilities to other countries. It appears we want it both ways: responsibilities for other countries, but not for us. American Exceptionalism is again in the saddle.

If we fully accepted the idea that countries have responsibilities, then we would be asking what is the responsible way, in concert with others, to confront Assad’s barbarism rather than acting as if it is entirely up to us to decide what to do about Syria.

We may be frustrated that the United Nations Security Council cannot reach agreement about what to do. Russia and China won’t approve U.N. sanctioned military action against Assad. But are we listening to their reasons? Certainly, each often acts in its own self-interested way, but each is also remembering Libya when they went along with U.N. sanctioned military force to prevent Muammar el-Qaddafi from murdering his own people. They believe they authorized restraining Qaddafi, not overthrowing him. They are reluctant to authorize another effort to restrain that might be used as a blank check for regime change.

The United Nations is not our only option for holding Assad accountable. We could and should charge him with crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court. This would provide a setting for publicly hearing and weighing the evidence that the Assad regime has used poison gas. Referral to the ICC would be awkward for the U.S., however, because the United States has refused to recognize the International Criminal Court. We have said that recognizing the ICC would be an unwarranted intervention in our internal affairs. Of course that is just what Assad is saying about any efforts to restrain him. 

So here’s the question again: Does the United States believe that countries have responsibilities to other countries? Taken in the large, the United States is today the country that most stands in the way of recognizing and upholding international norms, laws, and processes. 

A U.S. foreign policy framed around shared security recognizes the humane obligations we have towards one another—even across national boundaries. These are responsibilities we must consistently acknowledge, not just lift up when it suits our fancy. 

About the Author

Douglas Bennett is a member of AFSC's Corporation, as well as the Standing Nominating.  He also serves as the clerk for the AFSC Friends Relations Committees. Doug is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College.