TCS Daily

The Limits of Sovereignty

By Carroll Andrew Morse - November 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Syria has accidentally placed itself at the center of the debate about the limits of sovereignty and the legitimacy of collective action. On February 14, Rafik al-Hariri, former Prime Minister of Lebanon, was killed by a car bomb in Beirut. Al-Hariri was the leading Lebanese politician opposing the imposition of a Syrian controlled government over Lebanon. Suspicion of Syrian involvement in al-Hariri's assassination quickly spread. By the end of April, a popular uprising forced the resignation of Syria's proxy government and an end to Syria's fifteen-year military occupation of Lebanon.

This loss of control over Lebanon was just the beginning of Syria's problems. An initial United Nations investigation into al-Hariri's assassination found that "many leads point directly towards Syrian security officials as being involved with the assassination" and recommended further investigation. The United Kingdom and France joined with the United States to sponsor Security Council Resolution 1636, ordering Syria to cooperate with the investigation and detain officials suspected of involvement in the bombing, calling on UN members to restrict travel and freeze assets of individuals under investigation, and demanding that Syria not interfere in the internal affairs of Lebanon. The resolution received unanimous Security Council approval on October 31.  

Not everyone who favors action against Syria is pleased with resolution 1636, or, more generally, that the United States is pursuing its interest in this matter through the United Nations. The UN-based diplomatic effort against Syria bears some disquieting resemblances to the failed diplomatic efforts against Iraq in the latter half of 2002. Although Iraq had been in non-compliance with Security Council resolutions for 11 years, the UN steadfastly refused to move beyond deliberating what conditions should trigger more deliberations. Resolution 1636 could be the beginning of the same process of endless delay; the only action specified for Syrian non-compliance with 1636 is reconvening the Security Council to consider "further action".  

Despite the procedural similarities, the differences between 2005 Syria and 2002 Iraq provide a reasonable hope that the outcome this time might be different. Syria is much more vulnerable to collective institutional action than Iraq ever was. We now know that no program of sanctions was ever going to be effective against Iraq. Iraq's manipulation of the oil-for-food program, abetted by willing and rampant UN corruption, made isolation of Iraq impossible. Syria lacks the volume of oil necessary to tempt the world into behaving badly.  

Furthermore, Syrian Baathists have not destroyed their surrounding society to the same degree that Iraqi Baathists had destroyed theirs. There exists credible, native political opposition unhappy with Syria's governing Alawite minority. This also relates to oil. A petrostate need only maintain the bare bones of a society needed to get a small percentage of the population to and from jobs at the state-run oil company and satellite businesses. A state without oil must support a society vibrant enough to support a diverse economy. Syria's recent release of 190 political prisoners is an obvious attempt -- probably too little, too late -- to build support for the government within Syrian society.  

As important as the differences are, a set of conditions that have not changed between 2002 and 2005 will drive America's leadership in this matter. The concept most widely shared by the various foreign policy factions within the administration of George W. Bush is not the idea of spreading democracy, or transforming the Middle East, but that September 11 exposed America's need to restore an image of strength that had been lost. Two decades of weak responses to violent attacks -- the paralysis following the Iranian takeover of the US embassy in 1979, the withdrawal following the suicide bombing of the Marines in Beirut in 1983, the non-response following the attack on American soldiers in Somalia in 1993, and the series of weak, legalistic responses that followed the first World Trade Center attack in 1993, the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attack on the USS Cole in 2000 -- had taught the world that America responded to violence by modifying its behavior to avoid conflict, rather than by confronting enemies that openly displayed the means to act on hostile intentions.  

Swift American successes in the conventional military stages of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq ended the perception of American passivity and restored America's deterrent credibility. Today, no government wants to be known as the home base for an attack against America. The favored refrain of countries hostile to the US is "no evidence of connection" not "we will fight you asymmetrically". This administration will not risk America's restored deterrent credibility by speaking loudly without being ready with a big stick.        

So, given reasonable certainty that the Bush administration is not making high-profile noises against Syria without preparing to follow through, what happens next? The answer will depend, in large part, on the usual critics of Bush administration foreign policy. Syria's crude use of political violence provides an opportunity to unify a number of American foreign policy strains that have recently been estranged from one another. Syria's assassination of a political leader is frowned upon not only by hawks of various stripes, but also by process-oriented liberal internationalists -- who do not like one state interfering with another through the use of violence -- and by realists who view the assassination of leaders as dangerously destabilizing. Add in the growing contingent who believes that the United States should more skillfully combine participation in international institutions with the pursuit of American interests, and there should be a wide constituency for meaningful action against Syria.  

In the best case outcome, America bootstraps the world towards a meaningful act of collective security. The liberal internationalists take the lead on the political left. They help forge an agreement between America's different foreign policy elites on a plan for dealing with Syria that has tangible goals, realistic deadlines, and an enforcement mechanism. Confronted with a united America, nations not always inclined to support US foreign policy decide that sacrificing one clumsy dictator is more prudent than spending -- perhaps overspending -- the political capital of the United Nations to protect assassins harbored by the Syrian government. Syria, lacking any meaningful international support, is forced to turn over its government officials and nationals involved in the al-Hariri assassination. The growing spectacle of weakness and incompetence undermines Syria's government, setting Syria on a path to political modernization.  

And in the worst case? The liberal internationalists succumb to their own worst tradition. Instead of leading, they follow the lead of the visceral anti-Bush partisans and join tortured arguments that at best ignore, and at worst justify, state-sponsored political assassination. Sensing a divided America, the UN is never compelled to move beyond approving resolutions that do nothing more than threaten other resolutions. The Bush administration -- strongly committed to the idea that not acting once engaged shows dangerous weakness -- assembles a coalition outside of the UN to act against Syria. A divided Congress either barely supports or barely rejects action outside of the UN and future political assassins are emboldened during a debate where many members of Congress declare that no one should act against political assassination without UN permission.  

Not everyone believes that action outside of the UN following a UN non-response qualifies as a "worst case scenario". A United Nations that refuses to act against cross-border assassination -- an offensive act of war by any reasonable standard -- serves no purpose and should be allowed to continue its slide into irrelevance. Will the liberal internationalists and the further leftward skeptics of George W. Bush's foreign policy take this opportunity to demand that international institutions take a stand against anarchy? Or will they continue to undermine the legitimacy of those institutions by using them as justification for surrendering to anarchy?  

.Carroll Andrew Morse recently wrote for TCS about The Bias Towards Brutality and Totalitarianism.

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