President Obama’s pending decision about entering the Syrian civil war has already earned a rebuke from London after the British Parliament rejected a war resolution on Thursday. But the White House’s signal that it is willing to bomb Syria without approval from the U.N. Security Council and even its closest ally has also earned it new friends who worked for the president he succeeded.
Many former officials from the George W. Bush administration have discovered new respect for Obama’s recent embrace of American unilateralism after the suspected chemical-weapons attack last week in a suburb of Damascus.
“I absolutely congratulate President Obama for finally realizing that our U.N. allies are nothing more than a bunch of dithering, yellow-bellied, Chardonnay-sipping cowards,” said Mark Corallo, the former spokesman for the Justice Department in Bush’s first term. “I further congratulate him for finally growing up and understanding that there are bad people in the world and sometimes they earn, by their evil, the action of a great superpower. So yippee-kai-ay, cowboy.”
Ari Fleischer, who was the Bush White House spokesman during the Iraq War, was slightly more tempered in his praise for Obama. “When it comes to Obama’s anti-terrorism policy, whether it’s drone strikes, indefinite detention which continues, secret renditions which continue, or a determination to enforce a red line in Syria, I support President Obama. I just wish he wasn’t such a hypocrite in how he criticized George Bush in doing the very things he’s doing.”
While there are significant differences between Bush’s decision in 2003 to invade Iraq and the limited airstrikes Obama administration officials say they are preparing for Syria, both acts of war would be executed by the United States without explicit approval from the U.N. Security Council.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who said American actions should meet a “global test” when he ran against Bush in 2004, laid out the case Friday that the Assad regime had gassed more than 1,400 of his own citizens last week in suburban Ghouta. But Kerry didn’t lay out the legal justification for American action.
Republicans for years have scoffed at the idea that America should limit its actions in the world to the whims of the Security Council, effectively giving a veto on U.S. military decisions to Russia and China, who both wield that power over resolutions, along with France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
But Democrats, particularly after the Iraq War, have elevated the policy of multilateralism and working through international institutions like the United Nations to be a matter of principle and morality. Indeed, many considered the Iraq War to be illegal because Bush opted not to seek a second U.N. Security Council resolution in 2003 after France, Germany, and Russia made clear they would not support such an authorization of force.
“If we as a country can get to the point where we have a clear-eyed appreciation that the legitimacy of U.S. action in the world does not depend on approval of the U.N. Security Council, which is to say Putin’s approval, then the country will be better off,” said Douglas Feith, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the first term of the Bush administration. “The whole country should learn the lesson from Obama’s actions that a lot of the bitterest criticism of the Bush administration was not well grounded.”
Obama would not be the first modern Democratic president to enter a war without approval from the U.N. Security Council. In 1998, President Clinton bombed Serbia in response to the attempted ethnic cleansing of Kosovo without such approval. (At least Clinton had NATO on his side.) But Obama ran for office in 2008 as an alternative to the Clintons on national security, brandishing his opposition to the Iraq War as a chief qualification for the job.
In one of the first major foreign-policy addresses of that campaign, Obama in 2007 acknowledged that in some cases America must use force unilaterally to protect itself. “But when we use force in situations other than self-defense, we should make every effort to garner the clear support and participation of others,” he said at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. His 2010 National Security Strategy says, “When nations breach agreed international norms, the countries who espouse those norms must be convinced to band together to enforce them.”
On Syria, the Obama administration until recently has said that its hands were tied because of the difficulty of obtaining a U.N. Security Council resolution to authorize an intervention. Last year, then-secretary of defense Leon Panetta told Congress that the United States would need to seek “permission” from the United Nations to do something in Syria. Panetta later clarified that he meant any such action would need a basis in international law.
This month, Obama told CBS News that American unilateral action in Syria without U.N. Security Council approval would raise questions as to whether “international law supports it.”
“President Obama built his criticism of the Bush administration around, and stakes his presidency on, commitment to the international rule of law and the principle that the U.N. Charter is the fount of legitimacy for military intervention,” said Jack Goldsmith, who served as the head of the Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration between 2003 and 2004. “Now the first time that principle is actually being tested, where he has to choose between something he thinks is in the national interest and the requirements of the international rule of law, he is disregarding international law.”
In 2003, Goldsmith revoked the legal opinion that supported the practice of enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, a practice many considered to be torture. Goldsmith added that if Obama bombed Syrian targets at this point, he would not “even have the fig leaf of support from an important regional organization, as in Kosovo or in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The ultimate lesson here is the U.N. Charter and the international rule of law are not as important as the president has suggested for years.”
For now, many conservatives are unsympathetic to Obama’s international-law predicament. John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, a neoconservative journal, summed up the dilemma as follows: “This entire liberal-Democratic hysteria about international law over the last 10 years has now met the buzzsaw of a liberal-Democratic presidency.”