Invoking International Law Against Obama: Old Europe, New Europe and NeoCon Fail

Caretaker Czech Prime minister Jiri Rusnok and president Milos Zeman have denounced President Obama’s plans to bomb Syria not just as unwise but as actually illegal.

In the United Nations Charter, which the US crafted and to which it is a signatory, there are only two grounds for going to war: self-defense and a UN Security Council resolution designating a country as a threat to world order. President Obama has neither consideration on his side in bombing Syria, though he did seem to make an argument that the use of chemical weapons anywhere is a de facto threat to all other nations, edging toward a rather implausible assertion of US self defense in Ghuta. The US political class either hasn’t read the UN charter or actively despises it, and if they were honest they would revoke their treaty obligations.

Czech officials compare the plans for the US to strike Damascus to the Clinton administration’s bombing of Serbia in the late 1990s, which they say killed innocent non-combatants in contrast to American pledges.

This development strikes me as a startling turn-around from 2003, when France and Germany criticized Bush’s invasion of Iraq but then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld could point to support from “new Europe,” the post-Soviet states of eastern Europe.

Zeman is a notorious Islamophobe who probably just hates the Syrian rebels, coding them as Nazis. He also denounces Bashar al-Assad as a dictator, but says there isn’t much to choose between the two. Still, the Czech Republic has an embassy in Damascus and Rusnok says there are Czech “interests” in Syria (probably referring to trade, including arms trade).

Poland hasn’t gone so far as to denounce the US for plotting illegal activity, but it has firmly declined to be involved in any military action vis-a-vis Syria. Prime Minister Donald Tusk referred to Polish troop deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, saying: “We have experience in this part of the world, which shows that military intervention, even from the most obvious and noble motives, rarely produces the desired effect.” The US Neoconservative scorched earth tactics in pulling a ‘coalition of the willing’ into the cauldron of Iraq has left the US with virtually no allies save a handful of countries (chiefly France and Turkey) who wisely stayed out of the Iraq fiasco and so aren’t traumatized.

Poland is suggesting a face-saving way out, that Russia should intervene with its Syrian ally to extract pledges and ensure that chemical weapons are not used again. (Unfortunately, Russia is in complete denial about the Baath regime’s chemical weapons use and so at the moment not exactly helpful).

One of the differences between Syria and Iraq is that Syria is not very far from eastern Europe. For Bulgaria, the anxiety about an American attack mainly centers on fears that it will create a whole new wave of Syrian refugees in that country, which is already facing a refugee crisis from the Syrian influx.

Although many in Western Europe (including the British parliament) also oppose unilateral American action, Eastern European opposition, especially the Polish, is one reason that NATO has said that it won’t be aboard with a US attack.

In essence, the US is flanked only by France, Israel and Turkey publicly, and behind the scenes by Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It is a much diminished, pitiful coalition of the willing.

Ironically, the breathtaking illegality of the US war on Iraq may have over the succeeding decade given the UN charter and international law more standing than it had ever had before, at least in world political rhetoric. To have even a ethnically chauvinist government like that of the Czech Republic invoke it against the United States is mind-boggling.

35 Responses

  1. We pretend there are rules, but this is what we preach among ourselves:

    The goal of diplomacy is to further the state’s interests as dictated by geography, history, and economics. Safeguarding the state’s independence, security and integrity is of prime importance; preserving the widest possible freedom of action for the state is nearly as important. Beyond that, diplomacy seeks maximum national advantage without using force and preferably without causing resentment.

    link to

    There’s lots more at the link for the person trying to understand the current behavior of “states” and seeking clues to other ways to “do business.” Other than stuff like “preserving the widest possible freedom of action.”

    The Golden Rule, of course, really only applies, as a guide to behavior, to people pretty much with the same level of Projectable Power who have to look each other in the eye and face, and are more mutually vulnerable.

    Maybe the Great Bully, that complexity of military and industrial interests, might be running up against some natural limits to “widest possible freedom of action?” Then again, “we” have all those thousands of nuclear warheads, and other stuff…

  2. Correct me if I’m wrong, Professor, but I seem to recall that we threw a whole lot of money/favors “New Europe’s” way in order to secure their cooperation back in 2003.

    Could it be a simple question of bribery, or in this case, a lack thereof?

  3. If chemical warfare comes back onto the world scene because Russia vetoes efforts to punish and deter Assad, the United Nations will be in the same position as the League of Nations after the Italian chemical attack on Abyssinia.

    That is, a dead letter.

    • The League of Nations didn’t fail because the Italians gassed Abyssinians, but because the nations that “imposed” economic sanctions on Italy under League auspices were in fact cheating on their own sanctions. The Brits and French never had their hearts in sanctions anyway, partly because neither government had any real issues with Mussolini’s regime, partly because there was still a chance Mussolini could be kept from joining up with Hitler. But there was an outraged public opinion to worry about and both Britain and France were facing national elections, so the politicians had to go through the motions of “punishing” Italy even if it meant making the League of Nations look silly and ineffectual.
      Ho hum.

    • Chemical warfare is already on the world scene, there’s no gang of 240 lining up in this instance to give a drubbing to a particular miscreant, and it is the falsest kind of logic to try to lay that at the altar of some set of self-interested, mutually dishonest and hypocritical national rulerships’ “failure” to buy into the very current and dishonest meme about “having to punish and deter Assad.”

      It would be wonderful if this instance were to catalyze a real “league of nations” that were joined to deal with crap like, oh, petrocombustion and its problems, something other than the coming ‘Rape of the Arctic/Antarctic/Ocean Floor.’ And the ever-popular sovereignty-and-human-rights-crushing Trans-Wherever Partnership scams… Don’t think that in the air, on the land or under the sea likely to happen. Do you?

      Seems to me that whole continued “mark my words” argument at this point is just about how to save a muscle-bound Obamadom’s face from a deserved dose of banana-republic creme pie… complete with ornamental “Red Line” and pink-rose decorations…

      • Chemical warfare is already on the world scene


        The norm against chemical weapons remains in play – no serious scholar of international relations believes otherwise.

        The rest of your comment is mere mud slinging and misdirection, and doesn’t warrant comment.

    • What do you think was used in Fallujah? That legitimized use of chemical weapons.

      • No, May, white phosphorus is not a chemical weapon. It is in incendiary.

        It does not meet the definition of chemical weapons in any international treaty, and is not included in any of the three schedules of chemical weapons.

        You might as well argue that gasoline is banned by the chemical weapons convention.

    • This whole fiasco of being unable to deal with possible chemical warfare has been caused by Obama who has painted himself into a corner with his ‘red line’ and his self-imposed deadlines.

      There are mechanisms for dealing with chemical warfare. There was an attempt to declare a WMD free zone in the Mideast where the US torpedoed further meetings as late as Nov 23 2012, stating the presence of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons should be negotiated by regional states. Israel, not a signatory of the NPT was being protected by preventing arms control in the region.

      The UN is presently investigating if the attack did indeed occur. This needs to be impartial, painstaking and absolutely conclusive. Following that, the pressure would be on Russia and other Security Council members to deal with undeniable and illegitimate chemical warfare.

      Obama is shackled by the stupidity of the Iraq invasion. The UN has a similar problem, as the UN declared ‘no fly zone to protect civilians’ in Libya was interpreted by the West to be carte blanche to be the rebel air force. The Russians were caught on this last time and will be very wary this time around to avoid Western bombing and an aim of regime change in a civil war. Any target needs to be firmly under the control of all five permanent Security Council members.

      The UN has been undermined and manipulated time after time by the west. If we really want a world run on international law the West is going to have to accept limits on its actions. Starting with telling Cowboy Obama to pull back, wait for the UN report, and work WITHIN international law.

      • This whole fiasco of being unable to deal with possible chemical warfare has been caused by Obama who has painted himself into a corner with his ‘red line’ and his self-imposed deadlines.

        That’s runny, I thought it was caused by the government that gassed hundreds of people with sarin.

        Does that reality come into your thinking at all, or do you have much bigger fish to fry than the mere return of chemical warfare as part of modern war?

        If the United States had used sarin in a war, this place would be a shrieking hive of denunciations of the war crime, and rightfully so.

        There has to be something more than just rooting against that country you hate so much.

  4. In essence, the US is flanked only by France, Israel and Turkey publicly, and behind the scenes by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

    Of the three nations mentioned, only France seems willing to supply either planes or ships. It’d be inconsiderable Israel would act in any overt way and Turkey would definitely risk air, missile and artillery strikes from Syria. Only Qatar and the Saudi’s are willing to settle for an all out civil war over Assad’s rule, thinking, I guess, that the Islamist’s they back will win.

    As to legality, the US know it’s above international law and Obama knows he’ll never be charged for law breaking, let alone visiting The Hague in the dock.

  5. Read the UN Charter? I have doubts they’ve read the War Powers Resolution!

  6. Looks like Obama adhered to the real “Red Line”: Article 1 section 8 of the US Constitution:

    The Congress shall have Power To . . . define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;
    To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

  7. “President Bets Republicans Capable of Governing”
    Reckless? Brilliant? Both?

    The Republican Party has a question to answer. Do they want to stand with the President or with Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah?

    And who, pray tell, will enforce the Chemical Weapons Convention or is that a matter we leave to Russia?

  8. Leaving aside the question whether a strike against Assad is legit or not, this much is clear: US foreign policy is paying a very heavy price for Bush’s folly. How long this will hang over us – hard to say. But it’s for now and the foreseeable future.

    Heckuva job, Georgie!

  9. Obama is nicely establishing the precedent that any nation can take military action against any other if the target nation violated some “solemn” treaty.

    Since the US has never been anointed by the world’s nations to be the official retribution agent for “solemn” treaty violations, it stands to reason that actions taken by “The Worlds Most Heavily Armed Nation” can indeed be precedents for unilateral actions taken by any other nation.

    Also reinforced the notion that it’s not how many are killed and maimed, it’s the weapons used. In the Syrian war something like 50 people were killed by conventional weapons to one by chemical weapons. The former group arouses serious hand wringing by our altruistic leaders, while the latter group arouses the need for violent retribution.

    Yes we will deliberately add the the Syrian death toll, but with the pride of knowing that it was done with conventional weapons.

    • Yeah, the Americans and British were never very upset by illegal chemical weapons deployment by Iraq against minority Kurds in Halabja in 1988, nor in Gaza by Israel in 2009.

  10. Obama’s pullback today from his stated Syrian strike of yesterday is a double, or maybe triple whammy for him, all major self inflicted wounds. He looks like a fool having finally done the right thing, but in doing the only reasonable thing demonstrating a lack of clear thinking and certainty, which was the danger of his silly red line in the first place. Who was advising him Thursday and Friday?? They should be canned. Which reminds…what has Obama ever canned for non performance in all of his ‘tenure’. Whammy two is that Congress is likely to not give him support, given Republican tendency to counter everything Obama wants, and the clear national sentiment showing that Americans want another one of those war thingies with no backout plan or even clear intention or benefit about as much as they’d like another deep recession or elective proctologist exam. Whammy three is the Obama/Kerry ventriloquist act where Kerry-delivering-Obama-news photos looked like Kerry’s head was on crooked, while Obama was again buried in conference somewhere to let #2 turn on the spit try to make sense out of the Obama position. I thought: Look at you Kerry. Look at how far you’ve fallen.

  11. C’mon, Juan. Turkey is not an “ally” on this. Tayyip has been arguing for full scale war for his Sunni buddies since forever. Remember when the TC F-16 got shot down and he tried to invoke the NATO Charter to gin up a war? He’s in the McCain Graham camp; he’s already objected that what Obama proposes is not enough to satisfy him, and unlike Gul he has no interest in Geneva talks. (Tayyip seems to think that since the West broke the Ottoman Empire, it’s also responsible for rebuilding it!)

  12. Iraq casts an incredibly long shadow that makes most (not all, such as Libya) international interventions in complicated ME conflicts difficult.

    There’s a huge trust deficit on US intentions. Some folks who are against Bashar al Assad, don’t support the US strike (supposedly limited to attacking WMD’s rather than removing the regime outright or supporting the rebels outright). They end up listing the US’s past wrong-doings, abuses and hypocrisies in the region, namely Iraq – be it defending Saddam’s use of WMD’s in the 80’s against Iraq’s own populations or the Iranians, or the WMD’s lies to knock off Saddam and invade Iraq dropping their own uranium shells and messing up the region – as their arguments for not seeing them get involved, even though the Syrian people are desperate for help.

    Questions also on the need for the WMD strikes by the US, when Israel has already gotten away with a few of their own, without facing any retaliation, and could just take the responsibility and carry on themselves.

    There was a window of opportunity early on 2 years ago for a clean intervention in support of the mostly FSA lead rebel opposition.

    However due to lack of information, caution (lessons from 80’s Afghanistan, unwillingness to intervene with boots on the ground, Assad’s capabilities and backing, etc) and fear mongering of sectarian jihadist militants (which became a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to Assad’s regime, and so called allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar), it just wasn’t going to happen.

    • “Iraq casts an incredibly long shadow that makes most (not all, such as Libya) international interventions in complicated ME conflicts difficult.”

      Good. Twenty years of savagery blew up in our faces, it’d be nice to think it at least gave us pause before we bought into another war we’ve no stake in.

      “…even though the Syrian people are desperate for help.”

      Which Syrian people? It’s a civil war not a popular revolution. There are a number of factions in Syria, making up a good proportion of the population that are on Assad’s side whether or not they support him personally. Those factions are certainly not desperate for the US or anyone else to intervene against them.

      As horrifying as the war is, it could easily become worse. Particularly with outside parties becoming openly involved in an essentially internal dispute.

      It becomes more dicey still when we realize just how little we understand the forces arrayed against Assad’s regime, and how little we know of their post-war plans or relationships between the factions.

      There are a lot more opportunities to make the situation worse than there are to improve it. I’m pretty sure that was the case two years ago as well when we knew even less about the still-nascent opposition movement than we know now.

      • I’d add that there needs to be accountability on Iraq all the way to the 80’s. At least the UK held an inquiry. It was quite hypocritical to hear Obama on accountability in Syria when there was none for the US. And casting the UNSC aside, when they’ve used and abused their procedures themselves before.

        Syrians on all sides are suffering. I’m not making a case for military intervention even though I want Assad gone, because its messy and driven by preconceived notions, false assumptions and self-interests, and yes, it’ll be the minorities who will suffer most, because it will inadvertently support the now jihadist lead opposition, unless there’s a plan to fight them too and contain it (which seems impossible). However, if you’re vehemently against Assad and know how dire it is, refusing an attack by the US is significant in those terms.

        I agree, it was unrealistic to back the rebels so quickly like Libya, considering the sectarian factors (the fear of Wahhabi/Salafi/Sunni extremists looms large on the collective Global Community’s mind. Saudis and Qataris should not have been allowed a free hand in promoting it, ruining a revolutionary movement that would not have been overwhelmingly Sunni) and proximities of different militant backgrounds (Shia Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah siding with a rare sect friendly Arab regional ally but is also a brutal regime, that could be replaced by another against them). Hindsight, I suppose, on what could have been done early on…the only out is to come down to a political or diplomatic solution and wait out war crimes charges decades on.

  13. Could this new-found red-line against chemical weapons use be backdated to include depleted uranium, white phosphorus, napalm, and agent orange (and others of which I may be ignorant)? If ALL chemical weapons in ALL circumstances by ALL parties were outlawed, wouldn’t the world be a safer place? And, while we’re at it, perhaps cluster bombs could be included.

  14. The UN is unraveling along with the whole Post-WW2 system. Soon the basis of Globalization will be gone because Globalization requires everyone to follow equal rules and the race to the bottom is dragging the whole system down that was designed for governments to have power and protect individual countries from economic, political and societal shocks through various means.

    We will see a Renaissance of countries and most international organizations will either metamorphosize into nations (like the GCC, maybe the EU) or dissolve.

    NATO is America’s Delian League and it’s on it’s way out for sure.

  15. Fouad Ajami was on CNN.

    Seems he wants to go all out in Syria, claiming Assad’s worse than Saddam, and trying to deny its not like the Iraq invasion, which he had supported and defended for a good time.

    • Fouad Ajami is a long time member of the Council on Foreign Relations and generally has been a cheerleader for whatever the U.S. Department of State is advocating.

      He is from a Lebanese Shi’ite family who have vast realty holdings there.

      • Yea, just recently read up on him. Unfortunate he’s still contributing, even on CNN, clearly looking forward to some higher ratings due to the war talk and coverage.

        Can’t imagine the Lebanese Shi’ite community being pleased with a Neo-con war monger, considering the history on Iraq, tensions there and their own different views and interests.

        How does his relatives feel when he supports actions, like the 2006 Israeli attack, that harms their real estates…let alone their lives? Or are they and their holdings in a different part of the country?

  16. I posted this on another thread, but seems worth repeating here.
    One thing not really pressed; ever since the UN was founded there have been/are presently factions of U.S. political scene who strive to disengage from the UN altogether.
    I seem to recall the Bircher’s were adamantly opposed to U.S. membership and historically there have been calls to break away from the UN; always radically right wing in nature.
    It seems they have finally won and it’s a bloody democrat who is handing them this victory.
    We’re just going to ignore the UN and do whatever the hell we please; who the hell will stop us?
    The rest of the world could, but seem timid to act…

  17. john Kerry said: ”there is nothing the UN would say that we don’t know”. Obama said” I can strike Syria without the UN authorisation”. But then again, Obama said that he will consult with the congress!’ there are things we know, we don’t know’. One of the regional power that doesn’t get mentioned often is IRAN.

  18. The story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf ends with a wolf showing up and killing the boy.

    The moral of the story is not that there are no wolves, but about the danger of setting up a situation in which no one responds to a real wolf.

    • Good wolf story Joe, but more than likely the poor boy would be eaten by the ubiquitous lions and tigers that have been chowing down on the Syrian population for the past two years.

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