Even if everything Secretary of State John Kerry says about chemical weapons in Syria were true, the evidence would prove only that Bashar al-Assad committed crimes against civilians. It would not prove that the U.S. government has either the moral or legal authority to commit acts of war.
These issues must be kept separate. We have reason to be skeptical of Kerry's case—why did President Obama try to stop the UN inspection?—but if it were otherwise, the case for U.S. military intervention still would not have been made—even if authorized by Congress.
No one appointed the United States the world's policeman. The government's founding document, the Constitution, does not and could not do so. Obama and Kerry have tried hard to invoke "national security" as grounds for bombing Syria, but no one believes Assad threatens Americans. He has made no such statements and taken no threatening actions. He is engulfed in a sectarian civil war. Inexcusably, Obama has taken sides in that civil war—the same side as the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate—but still Assad poses no danger to Americans. Bombing would make him more—not less—of a threat.
As it interferes in other people's conflicts, a self-appointed world policemen will breed resentment and a lust for revenge. No one likes a bully, especially when it's a presumptuous superpower armed with nuclear warheads and monstrous conventional weapons. (By the way, Assad's conventional weapons have killed far more people than sarin gas has.)
You might ask, How could U.S. punishment of Assad be equated with being a bully? Isn't he the bully? To be sure, Assad is a criminal. But the U.S. government's record on the world's stage hardly qualifies it for any merit badges. It rails against Assad's brutality, but it backed Iraq's late president Saddam Hussein, even when he used chemical weapons in the 1980s. It condoned the Egyptian military's mowing down of over a thousand street demonstrators after the recent coup, and it has more than tacitly approved Israel's string of onslaughts against the Palestinians and Lebanese. In these cases, American presidents could have properly responded by ending military aid—but they refused.
Similarly, the U.S. government for decades provided advanced weaponry to brutal and corrupt monarchies in the Arab world and autocrats in Asia and Latin America. More often than not, when a government represses its population, it uses equipment made in the USA.
America's selective outrage is not lost on the world. The U.S. government is neither an honest broker nor an avenger of the victims of injustice. It is the world's ham-handed hegemon, with overriding geopolitical and economic interests that determine what it does in any circumstance.
Assad is a suitable foe, not because he is uniquely cruel—hardly—but because Russia and Iran are his allies. American foreign policy in the Middle East has long been dedicated to guaranteeing that no country can challenge U.S./Israeli hegemony. American presidents have no problem with strongmen who crush their people's dreams of freedom, as long as those rulers do what they are told. But if they don't toe the line, watch out. Saddam Hussein and Libya's Muammar Qadaffi learned that the hard way. Now it's Assad's turn (earlier in the "war on terror," the CIA outsourced torture services to him), even if that means helping al-Qaeda in Syria.
It's not just that no one appointed the United States the world's policeman. By assuming that role, the U.S. government—no matter who's president—undermines the values we claim to uphold, such as freedom, justice, privacy, and peace. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan left hundreds of thousands dead, many more gravely wounded, and corrupt authoritarian governments in control of the social wreckage. The law of unintended consequences cannot be repealed, and the risk is no less with interventions that begin modestly, because no one can say what the other side—which includes Iran and Russia—will do.
At home, a perpetual war footing drains our pockets, puts us at risk of retaliation, violates our privacy, and distorts our economy through the military-industrial complex.
James Madison understood well: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.