Humanitarian Crisis, Geo-politics and the Dilemma Facing Congress

by Amos Guiora

In the days ahead, the Obama Administration will make a concerted and determined effort to convince Congress to authorize US military action in Syria. While the outcome, as these lines are penned, is unknown odds are Congress will vote in the affirmative, albeit not by a wide majority. Much will depend on the exact language of the President’s authorization request.

No doubt, collective and individual recollection of the broad, in reality too broad, language of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) in the aftermath of 9/11 will weigh heavily as will the so-called “war fatigue” that has become a phrase of choice in explaining hesitation for committing US forces.

Similarly, many Members of Congress will view, and subsequently weigh, with skepticism the Obama Administration’s intelligence briefing; after all, George Tenet’s infamous “slam dunk” regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Colin Powell’s ill-fated and embarrassing appearance in the United Nations will be important reference points in the discussion.

As Congress weighs the Administration’s request it is important that the focus of the debate extend beyond the alleged decision by the Syrian government to use chemical weapons against its own civilian population. Barbaric and horrific as that may be, violating any acceptable standard of law and conduct, Congress and the Administration must focus on the broader national security, international security and geo-political ramifications at stake.

That is, in deciding whether to affirm the President’s request—-regardless of the authorization’s exact language—Congress must not focus on the narrow, albeit horrifying, issue of chemical weapons. Rather, it is the broader questions, perhaps less compelling, that must draw the greatest attention and scrutiny.

In the late stages of World War II, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin created the postwar world; as Churchill correctly predicted, two powerful spheres of influence were created: the United States and the USSR. Those two spheres encouraged, facilitated, and participated in innumerable regional conflicts for over 40 years, under the umbrella of the Cold War. Nonaligned nations, the most powerful being Yugoslavia and Indonesia, sought to carve out a middle ground, often playing east against west.

For the most part, accepted norms, conventions, and treaties dictated both conflict and resolution; recognized principles of international law and mutual deterrence were critical safeguards as both the United States and the USSR recognized and respected the limits of power. In other words, the rules of the game were clearly understood by both protagonists in what was often a chess match with pieces and moves understood and familiar.

On the other hand, 9/11 and its aftermath have significantly contributed to a different type of conflict, best characterized as state/nonstate. Nonstate actors (NSA) unlike nation-states are not beholden to international laws and norms. The decision whether to undertake a particular action is not subject to external obligations and restraints imposed on the nation-state in accordance with international law, treaties, and conventions. In other words, a carefully constructed world order, based on recognized principles of sovereignty, limited self-defense, and international law, has given way to a world filled with more uncertainty than certainty.

That is not to suggest that the pre-9/11 world was devoid of conflict, unmarked by excessive use of force and violations of international law. That would be an incorrect assertion. Nevertheless, recognized mechanisms and infrastructures, established in the aftermath of WWII, were largely effective either in preventing conflict or contributing to resolution. However, horrors visited on civilian populations by nation-states, in the years following WWII, must not be gainsaid. Tragically, the international community was either unable or unwilling to prevent extraordinary violations of international law.

To list the most obvious: Sadaam Hussein’s chemical gas attacks on the Kurds, massacres in Africa, horrors in the former Yugoslavia, and unlimited attacks in Syria. These are but examples of nation-states acting in direct contravention to the rule of law and the international community’s hesitation at best, unwillingness at worst, to protect the innocent civilian population forcefully in accordance with humanitarian principles and obligations.

The above are important in understanding the complicated relationship among geopolitics, international security, national self-interest, sovereignty, and the limits of intervention. Although massacres of innocent civilians disturb the international community, they do not automatically warrant or justify foreign intervention in a domestic crisis, regardless of the tragedy and extent of human suffering. The decision to intervene, reflecting a rationally based assessment model, must weigh global and domestic considerations, reflecting political realities, military strength, and economic capability.

In addressing geopolitics and international security, attention must be paid to national security. Nation-states are members of international alliances and treaties, guaranteeing mutual obligation in the face of armed attack; however, the ultimate responsibility of national leaders is to protect their own civilian population. Therefore, geopolitics must be examined through the dual lens of broader international security and narrow, country-specific security.

The tension between the two is the result of the obvious dichotomy between national priorities and international obligations. This tension, possibly disconnect, between the two is inevitable; internationalization of conflict does not inherently reflect domestic responsibilities and obligations. Accordingly, national leaders are hard-pressed to justify intervention in conflict when national interest is not readily apparent. Nevertheless, the broader context of geopolitics imposes on national leaders the responsibility to recognize that domestic security is interwoven with international security; to ignore the latter affects the former.

Admittedly, the challenges of convincing the domestic electorate that national resources are required to ensure international security are significant. That challenge is compounded when legitimate concerns are raised regarding national priorities, particularly when national leaders confront economic crises requiring attention and resources. Widespread recognition exists regarding globalization and its practical application.

Nevertheless, two significant factors have recently cast a shadow over its viability and sustainability: the Eurozone crisis and domestic opposition to involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly in the face of the loss of life among military personnel. Sensitivity to the economic crisis and the financial and human cost of intervention is essential when examining the practicality of geopolitics; individually and collectively they test the limits of intervention.

Nation-state decision-making, reflecting predictability and consistency, significantly enhances global order. However, threats, actual or perceived, dramatically affect regional and global stability. In that vein, assessing how nation-states respond, whether unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally, to particular crisis points is essential to understanding the practical impact of geopolitical considerations.

A critical question is what the particular policies developed by the nation-state in the face of crisis are, and whether goals arising from the policy are clearly articulated and objectively attainable. As previously discussed, coherently articulating viable security and international relations policy is essential to effective geopolitics. However, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, many nation-states fail in articulating, much less implementing, policy.

That, in many ways, is the test facing the Administration and Congress in the days ahead.

Amos Guiora is a Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center for Global Justice at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, the University of Utah. Guiora who teaches Criminal Procedure, International Law, Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism and Religion and Terrorism incorporates innovative scenario-based instruction to address national and international security issues and dilemmas.