There are widespread reports circulating in the media that President Obama had not fully appreciated the political consequences of responding to a question at an August press conference that asked about the consequences of a possible future use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. Obama replied that such a use, should it occur, would be to cross ‘a red line.’ Such an assertion was widely understood to be a threat by Obama either to launch air strikes or to provide rebel forces with major direct military assistance, including weaponry. There have been sketchy reports that Syria did make some use chemical weapons, as well as allegations that the reported use was ‘a false flag’ operation, designed to call Obama’s bluff. As the New York Times notes in a front page story on May 7th, Obama “finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Such a policy dilemma raised tactical issues for the U.S. Government about how to intervene in the Syrian civil war without risking a costly and uncertain involvement in yet another Middle Eastern war. Not responding also raises delicate questions of presidential leadership in a highly polarized domestic political atmosphere, already shamelessly exploited by belligerent Republican lawmakers backed by a feverish media that always seem to be pushing Obama to pursue a more muscular foreign policy in support of alleged America’s global interests, as if hard power geopolitics still is the key to global security.

Richard Falk

Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967

What is missing from the debate on Syria, and generally from the challenge to American foreign policy, is a more fundamental red line that the United States at another time and place took the lead in formulating—namely, the unconditional prohibition of the use of international force by states other than in cases of self-defense against a prior armed attack. This prohibition was the core idea embodied in the United Nations Charter, embedded in contemporary international law, and it was also a natural sequel to the prosecution and punishment of surviving German and Japanese leaders after World War II for their commission of Crimes against Peace, which was the international crime associated with engaging in aggressive warfare.  The only lawful exception to this prohibition was a use of force consistent with the terms of a prior authorization given by the UN Security Council. The key hope for world peace was this consensus among the winners in World War II that in the future aggressive war and any acquisition of territory by force, even acquired in the exercise of self-defense, must be outlawed without exceptions. Such authorizations by the Security Council were obtained by the West in the Gulf War of 1991 and again in the NATO Libya War of 2011, but in each instance the actual undertaking became controversial as a result of the scope and intensity of the military operations far exceeding the UN mandate. As a consequence, there was a loss of trust on the part of China and Russia in endorsing limited uses of force under UN auspices, which became evident in the course of the gridlocked debate about what to do in response to the regionally dangerous violence in Syria that combined internal strife with external proxy involvements threatening the expansion of the war zone in a variety of menacing ways.

Actually the Charter red line has been surprisingly well respected over the period since 1945, at least in clear instances of border-crossing sustained violence. The UN authorized the defense of South Korea in response to an armed attack by North Korea in 1950. The UN, with surprising U.S. support, even exerted effective pressure in 1956 on the United Kingdom, France, and Israel to withdraw from territory seized after their attack on Egypt, which was the sole prominent example of law prevailing over geopolitics. In 1991 the UN successfully authorized force that followed sanctions, and succeeded in restoring the sovereignty of Kuwait after Iraq’s aggressive occupation and annexation of the country in the previous year. The UN red line held up reasonably well until the end of the last century, although all along its interpretation was subject to geopolitical manipulations by reference to a variety of loopholes and evasions associated with claims of humanitarian intervention, as well as a variety of strategically motivated covert interventions (e.g., Iran 1953, Guatemala 1954). This pattern of evasion was a prominent feature of the Cold War as both sides intervened in foreign states or in their respective spheres of influence (e.g., South Vietnam, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan) to uphold by force of arms an ideological alignment with one or the other superpower. Such uses of international force by rival superpowers without engaging the UN framework definitely eroded the authority of the anti-aggression red line and its stature in international law, but it did not lead political actors to call for its abandonment in view of the behavior of leading states. It is true that some anti-legalist international law specialists who subscribed to a realist worldview felt that patterns of state practice overrode the claims of international law and the UN Charter, and that, in effect, the red line had been erased, at least for the top tier of sovereign states. Although not made explicit, the American position was increasingly exhibiting the psychological characteristics of geopolitical bipolarity: no red line for American foreign policy, while maintaining a bright red line for others, especially for adversary states.

What weakened this red line even more decisively was undoubtedly the American led ‘coalition of the willing’ attack on Iraq in 2003 after an American plea for UN permission to use force had been rebuffed by the Security Council despite a concerted effort to convince its members that Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction was such a great menace to world peace as to justify what amounted to a ‘preventive war’. This undisguised defiance of this most fundamental red line of international law by the United States also defied world public opinion that had expressed itself in the most massive anti-war demonstrations in all of history, held in some 80 countries on February 15, 2003, a little more than a month before the ‘shock and awe’ start of the Iraq War.  Richard Perle, often touted as the most astute of the neocon intellectuals who fashioned American strategic policy during the Bush years, was exultant about this seemingly definitive breach of the red line, celebrating American aggression against Iraq in a Guardian article aptly headlined, “Thank God for the Death of the UN.” [March 20, 2003] Although the authority of the UN was definitely flouted by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the UN is far from dead as an Organization in its manifold efforts to address the concerns of the world, and even its red line, although covered with dust, has not yet been erased. Maybe we should really thank God that the collective global consciousness is so forgetful!

What is baffling about the Obama approach is that it purports to be very mindful of the importance of exhibiting respect for international law. Just last September in a speech to the General Assembly, Obama said, “We know from painful experience that the path to security prosperity does not lie outside the boundaries of international law”. In his Second Inaugural, Obama repeated the sentiment: “We will defend our people and uphold values through strength of arms and rule of law.” And in arguing on behalf of taking collective action against states that violate international law told the Nobel Peace Prize audience in Stockholm, “[t]hose that claim respect for international law cannot avert their eyes when those laws are flouted.”

And yet, when reflecting on intervening in Syria or resort to a military option in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, Obama is silent about the relevance of international law, even though neither instance of contemplated uses of force can be remotely claimed to be justified as either individual or collective self-defense. And for obvious reasons, there is also no mention of circumventing the red line by failing to seek authorization for a contemplated used of force from the Security Council. Presumably since approval would not be forthcoming due to the anticipated opposition of Russia and China it was not even worth considering as a public tactic. It is true that the Clinton presidency in participating via NATO in the Kosovo War proceeded also to embark on a non-defensive war without seeking prior authorization for somewhat similar reasons as any resolution on Kosovo proposing use of force was sure to be vetoed by Russia and China. The Kosovo precedent generated worries about non-defensive military undertakings lacking a legal foundation. These were offset in the belief that a humanitarian catastrophe had been averted. The Kosovo undertaking was convincingly justified at the time on credible moral grounds of imminent genocide, on political grounds as enjoying support from almost all of Kosovo’s European neighbors, and on practical grounds as a military intervention that was feasible. In effect, the legitimacy of the intervention was allowed to offset its illegality. As it turned out, the military undertaking and political follow up was more difficult than anticipated, but still achieved at a reasonable cost, within a relatively short period, and productive of zero casualties among the intervening forces.

The question raised is whether from an overall perspective, the red line of international law at stake in Syria is more like Iraq or Kosovo/Libya. It is unlike Iraq in the sense that there is an ongoing unresolved civil war in Syria that is actively destabilizing the region and already spilling over national borders to cause unrest in neighboring countries.  Syria is also the scene of severe Crimes Against Humanity that are being mainly committed by the regime. Finally, at present, there is no end of the violence is in sight give the relative strength of the two sides. It is, however, unlike Kosovo/Libya as there are proxy states acting as participants on both sides, the Damascus regime despite its behavior maintains considerable internal support while the opposition is widely viewed with deep suspicion and fear as to its democratic credentials, its lack of inclusiveness, and its uncertain respect for non-Sunni minorities. In a sense it is essential that each conflict be assessed within its own distinctive context, which should raise for discussion whether the red lines of international law and UN authority should be crossed in this instance on behalf of the blue lines of legitimacy (saving a vulnerable people from a humanitarian catastrophe) and white lines of feasibility (likelihood of success with minimum loss of life and high probability of positive net effects).

Finally, it has been argued that the changing nature of conflict has made the red line embedded in the UN Charter obsolete or at least in need of a drastically modified interpretation.  The rationale for rethinking the Charter approach to the use of force is associated with the global security situation that has resulted from terrorist attacks since 9/11 leading to the global war on terror being waged on a battlefield without national limits and with the killing increasingly done via reliance on robotic warfare on the one side and very primitive forms of disruptive violence by political extremists on the other side. Traditional ideas of deterrence, containment, and territorial defense seem almost irrelevant in relation to global security regimes when the perceived assailants are individuals who cannot be deterred and are operating in non-territorial networks and exhibiting a readiness to die to complete their mission. As matters are proceeding, the policy about force is being formulated without bothering with the red lines of international law and the UN, regressively producing once again a world of unregulated sovereign states and extremist non-states essentially deciding on their own when war is permissible. The recent Israeli air strikes on Syrian targets is illustrative: unprovoked and non-defensive, yet eliciting scant criticism in the media or even commentary about the dangers of unilateralism with respect to uses of international force. Such normative chaos in a world where already nine countries possess nuclear weapons seems like a prescription for eventual species suicide, an impression reinforced by the failure to take precautionary steps with respect to the menace of global warming. Never has the world more needed red lines that are drawn by major states, and upheld by them out of the realization that the national interest has also merged with the global interest. Arguably, the red lines of the Charter need to be modified in light of the rise of non-state actors and the advent of non-territorial warfare, but such an undertaking is nowhere on the agenda of major states, and so the world drifts back to the pre-World War I era of unrestricted warfare, at least on the level of geopolitics.

What is strange in all this is that Obama talks the talk, but seems unwilling to walk the walk. Such a disjunction invites cynicism about law and morality, and induces despair on the part of those of us who believe the world we inhabit badly needs red lines, but the right red lines. Redrawing the red lines that fit the realities of our world and keep alive hopes for peace and justice, should be the great diplomatic challenge of our time, the visionary projects of leading diplomats whose imaginative gaze extends beyond addressing immediate threats. The old red lines have been put aside in contemplating what to do in relation to Syria, but without trying to establish new red lines that can serve humanity well in what has been so far a disorienting journey in the 21st century.