The Corruptions of Being the World's Policeman

Obama's Syria blunder demonstrates the folly of playing international sheriff.


In making the case for a Syrian war to the Senate on September 3, Secretary of State John Kerry made so many bad arguments-including insisting repeatedly that the proposed bombing campaign would in fact not be a war, at least "in the classic sense"-that most viewers probably overlooked a telling exchange with Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who has been a consistent skeptic of the national security state.

"To the international community we're saying once again the United States will be the world's policeman," Udall observed. "You break a law, and the United States will step in. We are on shaky international legal foundations with this potential strike."

This was as true as it gets. Enforcement of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which the U.S. accuses Syria of violating, is left up to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, which in turn can only get involved upon referral from the United Nations Security Council. Any U.S. bombing in the absence of specific U.N. authorization would be in direct violation of the U.N. Charter, which forthrightly prohibits the "threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." There's nothing in the rules about the U.S. lobbing Tomahawk missiles into the fray on its own recognizance.

But acknowledging such truths out loud would go right to the heart of the contradiction underpinning America's self-appointed role as global cop. We want to believe that we are acting in the noble, moral cause of protecting civilizational norms against barbarism. But we will freely violate international law in the process, while raining flesh-ripping death from the sky, including on innocents.

So John Kerry responded to Udall's query not with sober reflection on America's thankless role, or even a direct answer about the legality of its actions, but rather with an evasion.

"You raised the question of, doesn't this make the United States the policeman of the world," the secretary intoned, voice rising in umbrage. "No. It makes the United States a multilateral partner in an effort that the world, 184 nations strong, has accepted the responsibility for."

In reality, America is a "multilateral partner" all the way up to the moment that other countries don't do what we say and/or attempt to subject Washington to the same rules everyone else has to follow. Take the very Chemical Weapons Convention that Kerry and President Barack Obama have been citing as their casus belli: The treaty bound all signatories to have their stockpiles of poison gas destroyed by April 2012, yet the United States, one of the largest producers of chemical weapons in world history, breezily missed that deadline.

In fact, Bashar Assad would almost certainly have been indicted by the International Criminal Court long ago had the U.S. not led a successful lobbying effort to make sure that non-signatories to the Treaty of Rome (like Syria and plenty of other dictatorships) only be subject to prosecution by the ICC via vote at the U.N. Security Council. In addition to increasing the degree of difficulty in bringing a war crimes trial, Washington also cheekily exempted itself: In 2002, then-U.N. ambassador John Bolton announced that "the United States does not intend to become a party to the treaty" anymore.

This mindset is not healthy, not just, and certainly not multilateral. And you can see it all over the debacle that passes for White House policy toward Syria, beginning with Obama's Yosemite Sam-style declaration in August 2012 that Assad using or even moving around "a whole bunch of chemical weapons" would amount to crossing "a red line for us." Then the president indulged in a little first-person singular. "I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation," he said. "[But] that would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

Not only had Obama not coordinated these comments with the relevant multilateral bodies, he hadn't even consulted his own national security team before going off half-cocked. He certainly hadn't notified Congress, despite the legislative branch's clear constitutional responsibility for authorizing wars of choice.

It wasn't that long ago that Obama was a critic of the national security solipsism he now embodies. In 2007, while competing for the Democratic presidential nomination on a platform stressing constitutionalism, civil liberties, and staying out of "dumb wars," Obama declared to The Boston Globe that "the president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."

Yet in 2011 the president did precisely that. Not only did he bypass Congress in authorizing the U.S. military to help topple the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but he flagrantly defied Congress several months later after it voted 295-123 to reject further authorization of lethal U.S. force there.

"The President is of the view that the current U.S. military operations in Libya are consistent with the War Powers Resolution and do not under that law require further congressional authorization," the administration stated in a dismissive letter, "because U.S. military operations are distinct from the kind of 'hostilities' contemplated by the Resolution's 60 day termination provision."

It's no accident that being global sheriff comes with an Orwellian mangling of the English language, so that bombing a country is not war "in the classic sense" nor does it even qualify as "hostilities." No single person is infallible, which means that no single self-appointed judge/jury/executioner will be able to avoid hypocrisy, double standards, and the corruptions of power. Since hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue, the "leader of the free world" will almost inevitably lie to the democratic citizens on whose behalf he claims to act.

Asked in Sweden on September 5 about his red line, the president therefore lied his face off: "First of all, I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line," he claimed, falsely. "The world set a red line when governments representing 98 percent of the world's population said the use of chemical weapons are abhorrent and passed a treaty forbidding their use even when countries are engaged in war. Congress set a red line when it ratified that treaty. Congress set a red line when it indicated that-in a piece of legislation titled the Syria Accountability Act-that some of the horrendous things that are happening on the ground there need to be answered for."

Neither the United Nations nor Congress ever said anything about an enforcement mechanism in which a U.S. president, based on his own erratic whim, decides to pull the trigger. So will he now?

In a sharp and sudden reversal that surprised his own national security team (again!), the president decided on August 30 to seek congressional authorization for bombing Syria after all, though he repeatedly asserted his authority to act without it. At press time, a libertarian/progressive coalition in Congress, led by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.), looked poised to reject the authorization, over the wishes of leadership from both parties and much of the Washington establishment. How the president will act in the face of rejection is anybody's guess.

In 1971, an eloquent young critic appeared on William F. Buckley's TV show Firing Line to critique U.S. foreign policy. "Interventionism, as well as globalism, both stem from the same kind of moralism," he said. "And in a certain sense I think that moralism can be very defeating for the United States and its undertakings. It gets us into a sort of messianic enterprise."

That man's name was John Kerry. He was right then. He's wrong now.