What Are Our Obligations Toward Syria? Are we exceptional or responsible?

by Doug Bennett

Syria by by Eric Barfoed

Syria by by Eric Barfoed

As Syria holds our attention, the biggest question for me, and I hope for you, is about the United States.  As the United States asserts that Syria’s President Assad has responsibilities to his own people, we should be asking what are our responsibilities to other countries?

Syrian President Assad used poison gas against citizens of his own country: that’s the charge. It is an unproven allegation that it was the Assad regime that used the gas. There has not been any public consideration of the evidence, and we all remember (don’t we?) that the allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq turned out be bogus.

The case for intervention is that there are limits to what a leader (whether a despot or democratically elected) can do towards his own people.  A leader has obligations and responsibilities, the argument goes, and other countries can and should enforce these responsibilities, once breached.  Use of poison gas is a crime against humanity, and no one should be allowed to do that.

There are those who reject this idea in the name of sovereignty. Each country is its own sovereign world, they say, and no other country should think it has the right, let alone the responsibility, to intervene in the affairs of any other country.  What happens in Syria is Syria’s business, something for Syrians to sort out. Those from Turkey or Russia, Israel or the United States should butt out.

These are starkly opposed views of international affairs. One claims nation states are each their own world, with no rights or responsibilities to anyone else. The other claims that there are at least some international norms or rules that must not be broken. If a country breaks them, other countries can punish them. This second view says there are international norms, international laws, and international organizations that nation states should respect, and to which they should be held accountable. The first view says that the international scene is lawless and normless, a terrain where the strong rule and might makes right.

Which is our view? I believe that there are and should be international norms, and that Assad may well have broken an important one. But what’s the view of the United States government?

On the one hand, the U.S. seems indeed to be saying that Assad broke an international norm and should be punished. But on the other hand, the U.S. also seems to be saying that the U.S. should make up its own mind about what to do about this.  We seem to be presuming we can and should do as we please towards Assad, denying that we have any responsibilities to other countries. It appears we want it both ways: responsibilities for other countries, but not for us.  American Exceptionalism is again in the saddle.

If we fully accepted the idea that countries have responsibilities, then we would be asking what is the responsible way, in concert with others, to confront Assad’s barbarism rather than acting as if it is entirely up to us to decide what to do about Syria.

We may be frustrated that the United Nations Security Council cannot reach agreement about what to do. Russia and China won’t approve U.N. sanctioned military action against Assad. But are we listening to their reasons? Certainly, each often acts in its own self-interested way, but each is also remembering Libya when they went along with U.N. sanctioned military force to prevent Muammar el-Qaddafi from murdering his own people. They believe they authorized restraining Qaddafi, not overthrowing him.  They are reluctant to authorize another effort to restrain that might be used as a blank check for regime change.

The United Nations is not our only option for holding Assad accountable. We could and should charge him with crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.  This would provide a setting for publicly hearing and weighing the evidence that the Assad regime has used poison gas.  Referral to the ICC would be awkward for the U.S., however, because the United States has refused to recognize the International Criminal Court. We have said that recognizing the ICC would be an unwarranted intervention in our internal affairs. Of course that is just what Assad is saying about any efforts to restrain him.

So here’s the question again: does the United States believe that countries have responsibilities to other countries?  Taken in the large, the United States is today the country that most stands in the way of recognizing and upholding international norms, laws and processes.

A U.S. foreign policy framed around shared security recognizes the humane obligations we have towards one another – even across national boundaries.  These are responsibilities we must consistently acknowledge, not just lift up when it suits our fancy.

About the author: Douglas Bennett is clerk of AFSC’s Friends Relations Committee, a member of AFSC’s Corporation, as well as as a member of AFSC’s Standing Nominating Committee. Doug is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. His scholarly publications include Transnational Corporations Versus the State: the Political Economy of the Mexican Automobile Industry, co-authored with Kenneth Sharpe (Princeton University Press, 1985), and many articles on transnational corporations in developing countries, immigration, and other topics in public policy and in higher education. Doug serves on the FCNL General Committee. In the past Doug has served on various of AFSC’s advisory committees.  He is married to Ellen Trout Bennett, and has two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).   He is a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana, part of the New Association of Friends that is forming in the midwest. You can learn more about Doug at his blog.


7 thoughts on “What Are Our Obligations Toward Syria? Are we exceptional or responsible?

  1. Pingback: Syria: What’s the Responsible Response? | River View Friend

  2. The Oread Friends Meeting of Lawrence, Kansas, seeks to respond to FCNL’s Call to consider shared security in light of the Syrian crisis. We hope that FCNL can help the President and his advisors to consider the following partners in working for peace: Iran, with the common interests against the use of chemical weapons and working with refugees; Israel, for refugee and medical/hospital assistance; the United Nations, particularly working through the General Assembly and the UNHCR; and a group of outreach partners such as VOA, BBC, and Al Jazeera.

    We also encourage FCNL to work for global policy change as part of putting our faith into action by encouraging the President and his advisors to respond to Syria through financial controls, travel restrictions, the International Court at The Hague, sanctions, support to refugee camps, drones with informational drops, etc.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  3. “Taken in the large, the United States is today the country that most stands in the way of recognizing and upholding international norms, laws and processes.”

    Really? Please point at some evidence. (I’m assuming “today” means “today”, not the GW Bush era.)

    Personally, I think this is an absurd allegation. Yes, there are many ways in which the US “stands in the way… of international norms”. There are many ways in which the US is the strongest supporter of international norms. And sometimes the US supports those norms by opposing the takeover of individual rights by countries who wish to operate thru the UN. (A good example is the frequently proposed takeover of the Internet by the UN, which would allow for all sorts of censorship and spying, even beyond the dreams of the out-of-control NSA. But I digress…)

    The “US… presuming to do as it pleases” argument is also absurd and fits neither the facts nor the basic argument. In fact it’s a classic straw-man argument, that is unworthy of Quakerism. The US is in the position of considering acting when no-one else WILL act. Is that the act of an arbitrary bully, or the act of a lone hero? Or somewhere in between? Yes, it is dangerous. But the actions of the US today appear more in the direction of “trying to drag the world along” than “acting regardless of other countries or opinions”. To paint such a one-side version of this issue is, I argue, contrary to acting in the spirit of truth.

    • Thanks for lifting this up. It’s worth discussing, but I stand by the assertion. Let’s just start with some observations.
      Today, most Americans believe that our country’s security depends in the main, and certainly in the end, on our own military might. The citizens of no other country believe that.
      Today, all by itself, the United States is responsible for over half the military expenditures made anywhere in the world. When an explosion happens somewhere, it is as likely as not that the bomb was paid for by American tax dollars.
      All by ourselves, we in the United States tore up the international conventions on torture. George W. Bush may no longer be President, but as a nation we have done nothing to bring to justice those who engaged in torture.
      The only country ever to use an nuclear weapon in war, we continue to insist on holding a huge stockpile of ready-to-use nuclear weapons while insisting that other countries not be allowed ever to acquire nuclear weapons.
      The United States is still the most important hold-out country in the establishment of an International Criminal Court.
      We could extend this list (and perhaps we should). Taken together, all these observations point to our being the rogue bull elephant in the community of nations. We need to find our way to a different place, one in which we do not see ourselves alone as “exceptionally” responsible for our own conduct.
      There are other rogue countries in the world today, but they each carry no others with them. We are the one all-powerful rogue country that impedes progress toward a world order grounded in shared security.

      • Doug, I appreciate your sincerity, and you have many good points. But I have to say, in the spirit of truth, that I think you are still arguing very one-sidedly. And that does not lead to truth.

        For example:
        1. “When an explosion happens somewhere, it is as likely as not that the bomb was paid for by American tax dollars.” That’s just a wild assertion, and does not follow from the foregoing (good) argument about “over half the military expenditures”. The vast majority of US (tax-payer paid) armaments are never used, and have to be decomissioned. How many bombs have exploded in the last year (or month, or day)? How many of them were US? Gather any kind of actual data that you want, and I’d be astonished if it were > 50%.

        2. “The only country ever to use an nuclear weapon in war, we continue to insist on holding a huge stockpile of ready-to-use nuclear weapons while insisting that other countries not be allowed ever to acquire nuclear weapons.” False in many places. The US has led the way, over many years, in reducing the stockpile of nuclear weapons — in some cases unilaterally! And your last sentence should be “insisting that NO NEW countries… acquire nuclear weapons”. Is that “fair”? Heck, no. Is it the best possible way to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons? I suspect it is.

        I could go on — and I still agree with most of the specific points that you make. But to leave out the other side of each argument is bad politics, bad engineering — and in belief, is not consistent with Quakerism.

  4. (Sorry again, can’t edit. Last sentence of long post should be “I believe”, not “in belief”. I’m really trying to use “I language” here, as the first/best way to open conversations in peace.)

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