Debating Syrian Intervention

Check out the conversation on Syrian intervention at Notes on Liberty, “A Few Remarks on Interventions in Syria and Iraq.” And feel free to check out last year’s conversation on the same subject here, from the now-defunct Institute for Objectivist Studies blog (11 posts). If I can change one mind on the subject, I’d count my efforts as a success.

P.S.: In an earlier post, I described Bruce Ackerman as a strange bedfellow in the debate over Syrian intervention. But I think I’d have to kick Howard Friel, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Herman out of bed, despite agreeing with them on the narrow question of the need for a Congressional vote on Syria, and on the potential applicability to the case of Syria of the War Powers Resolution. In a letter published in today’s New York Times, Friel, Chomsky, and Herman casually (but dogmatically) assert the following:

While the president must request and receive congressional approval within the strictures of the War Powers Resolution of 1973, as both Mr. Ackerman and your editorial rightly demand, neither Congress nor the president is free to violate the United Nations Charter’s prohibition “against the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Individual nations are bound by their international obligations regardless of their constitutional law. Thus, the reach of law here goes beyond the War Powers Resolution to the United Nations Charter.

It’s a claim to confirm the most paranoid fears of the most paranoid right-winger: the United Nations Charter supersedes the U.S. Constitution. On the face of it, I don’t see how the United States (or any other country) can be “bound,” whether legally or morally, to adhere to the terms of a document when doing so would violate its own constitution. The perplexity is increased when you consider that it’s obvious how and why the U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, but not obvious that international “law” is law at all.  Though it’s a bit of a distraction from the issue directly at hand, I’d be curious to see an argument for their claim.

2 thoughts on “Debating Syrian Intervention

  1. Here’s a charitable interpretation: to be bound by international obligations “regardless of their constitutional law” does not mean “even in violation of their constitutional law,” but “even when an act is consistent with their constitutional law.” I take it that their argument is supposed to have the form of an a fortiori argument: even if the U.S. constitution allows it, international law does not; therefore it is impermissible. Of course, the “fortiori” part is put into question by your observations about the status of international law. But there is a pretty weak claim that would still get their argument through by taking the obligation to international law as a purely hypothetical one: *if* the U.S. is to be in good standing as a member of the U.N., it must adhere to international law; the U.S. should not consider its commitment to good standing as a member of the U.N. an open question; therefore the U.S. must adhere to the international law. A contentious and unsupported premise, no doubt, but not one that seems especially likely to receive serious challenge in real-life political deliberation at this time.

    On that interpretation, the argument seems good enough to me, though of course not absolutely decisive. I might be more troubled by its weaknesses if I had any strong reason to suppose that military intervention in Syria were a good idea. But perhaps I am just giving in to my habitual cynicism about international politics.


    • If that were the argument, I’d have no quarrel with it, but I think it’s an overly charitable interpretation of “regardless of their constitutional law.” I think “regardless” has to mean “even in violation of.” As I read it, the claim is: it doesn’t matter what a national constitution says; international law supersedes all national constitutions, including clauses of those constitutions flatly incompatible with international law.


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