In a stopover in Stockholm, Sweden on his way to the G20 summit set to begin in Russia on Thursday, President Obama defied logic—or at least consistency—as he argued that it was the "international community's credibility that was on the line" and not his own when it came to a military assault on Syria.
Making reference to the Convention Against Chemical Weapons and the obligation to respond to Syria militarily for the alleged use of such weapons, Obama said: "My credibility is not on the line. The international community's credibility is on the line because we give lip service to the notion that these international norms are important."
But the president's comments create an obvious contradiction because it has been the stated position of the Obama administration to avoid engaging with the United Nations over the issue, sidestepping the world body by ignoring its investigation into the alleged used of chemical weapons in Syria and deciding against presenting its own case for military action to the UN Security Council despite the legal requirement that it do so.
"The world set a red line when governments representing 98% of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons was abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war," Obama argued. "That was not something I just kind of made up, I did not pluck it out of thin air."
However, the U.S. does show that it is willing to "pluck" and choose which "international norms" it considers worth upholding.
As top White House officials pressed the case for an attack on Syria with members of of the U.S. Congress all week, it has become clear that it now wants Congressional authorization (though even that has been treated like a formality in some respects). However, forging a legal case and receiving the backing of the Security Council for an assault on Syria is plainly not on the Obama administration's agenda.
But, as Yale law professors Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Thursday, receiving authorization for military force—aka war—against a sovereign nation is "not optional" but, in fact, necessitated by the UN Charter. They write:
If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all — the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval. This rule may be even more important to the world’s security — and America’s — than the ban on the use of chemical weapons.
Mr. Obama cannot justify an attack on Syria based on any direct threat to the United States. Nor does there appear to be a direct threat to Turkey, a member of NATO, which might justify an assault based on collective self-defense.
As Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies argued this week, "The [UN] Charter was specifically designed to make it difficult to get authorization for military force - its whole raison d'etre is to stand against the scourge of war. So any new decision to go to use military force without Council authority means that use of force is illegal."
And author and historian Howard Friel, writing at Common Dreams, puts the Obama administration's case for war in Syria in the context of previous "illegal" U.S. wars—both in Vietnam and Iraq—that used twisted legal claims and dubious intelligence to justify themselves, stating:
Like Vietnam and Iraq, Syria has not engaged in an “armed attack” against the United States, and has no military capability to do so.
As in Vietnam and Iraq, the UN Security Council has not authorized the United States to engage in any use of force in Syria.
Thus, a congressional authorization of military force in Syria would violate the UN Charter, and thus, as above, the U.S. Constitution.
This would be the case even if the Obama administration’s claims about the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government were accurate, although, like the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraqi WMD, there is no detailed or confirmed evidence to date about which entity in Syria used chemical weapons.
So as Obama stands to shame and cajole the world (not to mention Congress and the American people) into supporting a new U.S. military campaign in the Middle East, while at the same time sidestepping the very body that was created to give the world's government an opportunity to act in concert, the president's grandstanding on international "credibility" exposes the glaring inconsistency of the administration's policy.