the national interest

Obama Better Have the Goods on Syria [Updated]

A picture taken on August 22, 2013 shows a devastated street in the Salaheddine district of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria. Russia questioned Western claims the Syrian regime may have carried out a chemical weapons attack and branded as
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

I’m predisposed to favor a punitive air strike against Syria for its apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians. But there are some important questions being raised by skeptics of such a strike.

The primary question centers on the legality or moral legitimacy of attacking a country with whom we are not at war. The clearest justifications for military action don’t apply. This is not a case of self-defense, or defense of an ally, or the prevention of genocide. There is an international treaty banning the use of chemical weapons against civilians, but Syria didn’t sign it, perhaps correctly calculating that it would one day need to use such weapons. We would be enforcing an informal norm against the use of chemical weapons against civilians.

I think the enforcement of such a norm is legitimate and would make Bashar al-Assad and other dictators hesitate before using such weapons in the future. But if you’re resting the morality of your attack on such a slender reed, you need very strong evidence that the regime you’re targeting actually used chemical weapons. And the administration’s case is starting to look shaky:

Multiple U.S. officials used the phrase “not a slam dunk” to describe the intelligence picture

A report by the Office of the Director for National Intelligence outlining that evidence against Syria is thick with caveats. It builds a case that Assad’s forces are most likely responsible while outlining gaps in the U.S. intelligence picture.

British intelligence asserts that it has “a limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks and that they were conducted to help clear the Opposition from strategic parts of Damascus.” That “limited” bit does not provide the level of certainty I was hoping to hear.

The weaker legal basis for a military strike requires a higher factual basis of proof. The Obama administration needs to nail down its case (which it is reportedly due to present publicly today), and if it can’t, it needs to back down.

Update: The UK Parliament has voted not to participate in any strike against Syria. Meanwhile, Obama is apparently ready to go it alone. This seems like a dangerous combination: If you’re enforcing an international norm, you ought to have not only very solid evidence that it was broken but also at least some international support. Otherwise it is less an international norm than an American norm.

It’s one thing if the case involves an imminent massacre, like in Libya. But the urgency of action, and potential benefits, are much lower in this case. I don’t think we’re in danger of being sucked into a war – that’s just people assuming the most recent historical experience will be repeated, the same mistake that always happens in foreign policy. But the case for action just keeps fraying around the edges at every point. At the very least, the burden of proof on Obama to produce unimpeachable evidence for Syrian guilt is extremely high.

Obama Better Have the Goods on Syria [Updated]