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President Obama today claimed that the United States does not need the U.N.’s approval to launch strikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons against its own citizens. This, of course, reverses his position on Libya and his criticisms of the Bush administration. This time Obama got it right.
I argue at National Review that the United States can intervene in Syria without the approval of the U.N. International law should allow uses of force that improve international peace and security. Blindly reading international law to forbid all uses of force except in self-defense is like failing to note a difference between the man who pushes an old woman into traffic and the man who pushes her out of it.
To stand in the way of this pragmatic approach to international law, the White House has bound itself to a misreading of the U.N. Charter. As historian Marc Trachtenberg has shown, the U.S. delegation to the U.N. drafting conference did not understand the Charter to limit Washington’s freedom to use force. Senators, for example, were concerned that the new treaty prohibited the Monroe Doctrine. But in a May 1945 meeting, delegate John Foster Dulles said that “at no point would the member states give up their right to use force in all circumstances.” Under his logic, the United States could still wage war to advance the United Nations’ goal of maintaining world peace and security. Leo Pasvolsky, the key State Department official on the U.N. negotiations, confirmed that “there was certainly no statement in the text under which we would give up our right of independent action.” He later explained to the delegation that “if the Security Council fails to agree on an act, then the member state reserves the right to act for the maintenance of peace, justice, etc.”
Removing the Assad regime, and thus ending the Syrian civil war, would restore regional and global security. In the short term, the fighting in Syria has cost at least 100,000 civilian lives, driven about 1.4 million refugees into neighboring countries, and displaced 4 million Syrians within the country. It has prompted terrorist groups such as Hezbollah to fight on the side of the government and drawn in regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Assad’s use of nerve gas against the rebels not only crosses the line between civilization and barbarism, it also portends the killing of even greater numbers of civilians.