Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Limited Surgical Sanitary War

[Author’s note: I try to keep this blog focused on finance and economics. However, since my country is on the verge of yet another elective war, I hope that readers will indulge my desire to comment.]

“Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, the Iraqi economy is in shambles, the Iraqi military is a fraction of its former strength and, in concert with the international community, he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

--Barack Obama, 2002

“The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”

--War Powers Resolution of 1973

There is a civil war going on in Syria. On the one side, you have the Assad regime which is supported by Iran, Russia and China. On the other, you have the rebels who are supported by the Gulf States and al Qaeda. The US has decided that it prefers the bloodthirsty al-Qaeda rebels to the bloodthirsty Assad regime.

The US is on the verge of declaring war on Syria on the basis of the “Rwanda Doctrine” that requires US military intervention in foreign civil wars for “humanitarian” reasons. So far under this doctrine, the US has attacked six countries: Somalia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. President Obama wants to add Syria to this list of humanitarian triumphs. Maybe he will win another Peace Prize.

Obama’s plan is to rain missiles and bombs onto “military targets”, and to avoid, as much as possible, schools, hospitals and the Chinese embassy. Since this is a humanitarian mission, the US will only use humanitarian bombs and missiles, so no one will be hurt.

War is an important foreign policy decision, for any state. It seems to me that, in considering attacking a foreign country, the US should consider three criteria: (1) international law; (2) American law; and (3) the Powell Doctrine. In my judgement, Syria fulfills none of these criteria.

International Law
The US is signatory to a list of treaties, from the Hague Convention to the Kellogg-Briand Pact, to the UN Charter, which prohibit states from attacking each other. Signatories are allowed to respond if attacked, but Syria has never attacked the US. Indeed, only seventy years ago, the US government expressed rather strong opinions about foreign attacks on its military bases, such as Pearl Harbor. There is nothing in international law which permits attacks on foreign countries without a UN resolution, which Obama doesn’t have. The fact that the UK and France also want to attack Syria is entirely irrelevant. The formation of an “alliance of the willing” is illegal without UN sanction.

American Law
From the founding until 1898, it was well understood by both the executive and the legislature that war was only justified in the event of an attack. The wars against Tripoli, Britain, and Mexico were all justified on the basis of foreign military aggression. It is true that the war with Spain was justified on humanitarian grounds, but it was an act of naked imperialism, something not contemplated by the founders. The War Powers Act only permits the president to attack a foreign country without Congressional authorization in the event of an attack on the US, which hasn’t happened. Bombing countries at the president’s discretion is illegal under US law.

The Powell Doctrine
The Powell Doctrine is not based in law, but rather in national interest, which should also be an important criterion in foreign policy. The Powell Doctrine represents General Powell’s conclusions regarding the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

Here it is (source Wiki):
The Powell Doctrine states that a list of questions all have to be answered affirmatively before military action is taken by the United States:
  1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?
  2. Do we have a clear attainable objective?
  3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
  4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
  5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
  6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
  7. Is the action supported by the American people?
  8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

By my calculus, Syria meets only one of Powell's eight conditions:

1. National security threat?
Syria poses no threat to US national security.

2. Clear attainable objective?
It is certainly not clear to me how dropping bombs on Syria will transform it into a thriving democracy at peace with Israel.

3. Risks and costs analyzed?
If so, the analysis has not been made public. I would observe that Russia might have a negative reaction to an attack on its ally, with unknowable consequences. Has Obama discussed this with Putin?

4. Diplomacy exhausted?

5. Exit strategy?
No. You cannot accomplish regime change or pacification from the air. Nor can you destroy nerve-gas canisters from the air.

6. Consequences fully considered?
I really doubt it.

7. Supported by the American people?
No, only 9% favor an attack.

8. Broad international support?
Not from the UN Security Council, where both Russia and China strongly object to an attack on a member state. Both consider such actions to be hegemonist and illegal.

It appears that Obama has replaced the Colin Powell Doctrine with the Samantha Power Doctrine which gives America the right (indeed the obligation) to invade or attack any country whose internal policies it disagrees with--but only if they are small and weak, and preferably if they are Arab. Kim Jong-Un can sleep tonight.

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