a Question of Sovereignty


The unfolding situation in and around Syria wonderfully illustrates the elements and limitations of national sovereignty.

Some view sovereignty as a legalistic concept – a country is “sovereign” if it has agreed upon borders and agreed upon status as a stand-alone state. Others in a moralistic light – a nation’s sovereignty is to be opaque to foreign manipulation. Still others from a political perspective – outsiders shouldn’t meddle in the internal matters of a sovereign nation. It turns out that “sovereignty” is a product of geopolitical Realism – a nation is sovereign as long the rest of the world says it is. Current Exhibit: Syria.

Several players are considering what degree of kinetic response to visit upon Syria in retaliation for Damascus using chemical weapons (Sarin) on its own people. Understand that “Damascus using,” “chemical weapons,” and “its own people” are all debatable variables. Assuming poisonous gas was used (some say), there is no proof which side used it (others say), and with all the foreign fighters in-country, it could have been militarily targeted (still others). The consensus, however, is that government forces used sarin neurotoxin against a rebel-held outskirt of Damascus. As area-effect weapons, gas attacks do not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants – indeed the thousand or so fatalities were top-heavy with women and children. It is the assumption that toxins were used by government troops against civilians that is driving the various Western states – the US, the UK, France right now – to discuss the use of some sort of military response.

And that brings us to a question of sovereignty.

Most sovereigns, as a rule, view the activity within another sovereign’s borders to be transparent to international diplomacy. There are examples of national behavior that have triggered international attention – Tiananmen Square, for example, generated widespread international ire, but Chinese sovereignty was never penetrated over the matter. Others have reached a tripwire: “ethnic cleansing” – Rwanda and Bosnia, for example – goading outside governments to act. Still others – the Arab Islamic government in Khartoum’s extermination of Christians in Darfur and the Muslim Brotherhood’s targeting of Coptic Christians in Egypt – have not generated outside military responses. Thus, it seems that a sovereign’s “permissible” behavior is a moving target, not bound by official language (even if some exists), rather by the ability and political will of other sovereigns.

One’s sovereignty, it turns out, is what everybody else says it is. And that’s a working definition of Realism – sovereign states maneuver to achieve desirable power-balances, and the amount of activity vis-à-vis Syria demonstrates that Syria isn’t the problem, Iran is. This is why the Saudis, UAE and Qatar are all privately counseling the West to act, even though they must publicly denounce Westerners striking Muslims. All three have been supporting and arming Syrian rebels for much of the two-year war, even after al Qaeda coopted the effort. Al Qaeda is, after all, Sunni.

13 thoughts on “a Question of Sovereignty

  1. I hope we take no military action against Syria. No drone strikes, no fly-overs to establish no-fly zones, no engaging the Syrians in military confrontations in any form. We stand to gain nothing if we do so.

    The entire Middle East is a mess and the more we involve ourselves in it the more we get blamed for it being a mess. My opinion.

    • Well, President Obama really has to do something – he repeatedly drew “Red Lines” in the sand, which Syria has repeatedly crossed. He will lob ~$200 million worth of Tomahawks around the country, accomplishing nothing, and go back to figuring out how to delay the rest of ObamaCare until after the 2014s. He has already told Assad, “don’t worry … this will be a very limited strike with no intent for effecting the outcome of the war, and no attempt at regime change.” The president’s ad-lib-cum-talking-point has painted him into a corner, and now he must own up or be revealed as an empty suit.

      Ostensibly, the strike would be a reaction to Syria’s heinous use of neurotoxin on its own people (or, for that matter, anyone!). The options discussed by the administration have nothing to do with eliminating that capability – you can’t bomb them without dispersing them. This is face-saving, nothing more, nothing less.

      • PS: You may get your wish after all. We had been waiting for the results of Britain’s parliament meeting (today), but Prime Minister Cameron is crab-walking, saying he now wants to wait for the results of UN inspectors’ report. Italy has pre-emptively said it won’t play, and Germany has joined the chorus for waiting for a UN resolution. Well, that’s a “no” vote. Allies the president was counting on – the ones that joined him over Libya – are falling away. I’m not at all sure Mr Obama will act with only one co-signer (France, to whom Syria was once a colony). If he takes a breath before acting, all is put off until after the G-20 meeting in St Petersburg (where he promised not to see President Putin in private) due to a narrowing proximity of the two events. By then Russia will have vetoed any meaningful resolution, sealing the president’s inaction – he won’t take on this profound a risk without UN permission.

        We’ll see.

  2. I too am following these moment-to-moment events as they unfold. I’m glad that our “allies” are falling away in droves! If Barack Obama decides to take this action unilaterally, it would be the biggest mistake he could make in his Presidency. I agree with all the critics who are urging him not to take this provocative action. Congress doesn’t approve of the plan and neither do the citizens of the U.S. He should listen to them (us).

    He will survive the criticism from those who are urging him to take action because of his unwise comment about “crossing the red line”. He can always claim that there is no solid proof that it was the Syrian army under the orders from Assad that committed this atrocity. I think we can agree that the gasing was the work of the Syrian army. If other countries are willing to use the excuse that they need to have solid proof before commiting to military action then we should too.

    • Interesting. Today, I see a real possibility that the president may, indeed, act alone. I’m not sure what his thinking on this is, as, if he does, it works against type, in that it wouldn’t be the way he’s been conducting business for 4+ years. We haven’t heard from France yet – they may still be onboard. I think he feels compelled to save face over his numerous “red line” statements.

      Two things are probably true about Congress on this matter – they bristle at being sidestepped in a weapons-hot military deployment that isn’t a national security emergency; and the ensuing debate and vote could only inhibit Mr Obama’s action and timing. He won’t go to Congress with it, and Congress will scream like a little girl.

      I don’t seem to remember your devotion to “listen[ing] to the citizens of the US” during the run-up to ObamaCare. My feeling is that the president is constitutionally compelled to consult Congress before mounting foreign combat operations that are not in response to an imminent national security threat. A good case can be made (on humanitarian and international law grounds – both favorites of congressional Democrats) for punitive-only intervention, and such a plan might well pass. The problem here is tactical – Congress takes too long to do anything, even something that’s popular with them. The time for punitive strikes is during the news cycle – closely couple punishment with crime for maximum impact. Too late looks a lot like too little.

      And yes, listening to the people should always be an important consideration in any republic. On something this time-sensitive, there would be no time to construct a non-push poll and analyze the results (let alone putting out bids for contracts for conducting the poll). A congressional vote is the best practicable method of tapping into the general gestalt. Of equal importance to the raw number of votes is the partisan split as it relates to the partisan split in Congress itself – in other words, is the vote reflective of a politicized Congress, or is it reflective of their honest feelings on the subject?

      Just as intoning a desire for a Security Council resolution is a vote against doing anything, so is insisting on “solid proof,” which inevitably involves a food-fight over the definition of “solid.” It’s very difficult to “prove” something that was done clandestinely and is being covered up by the perpetrator (in the middle of a combat zone, I might add). You look at what public data is available, and you apply critical thinking to the probable cause. No one can make a laugh-proof scenario for anyone but the Syrian government having access and expertise to the munitions and delivery platforms. They did it. That’s not in serious debate. The question is whether something must be done in order to demonstrate to the world that civilized society will not tolerate this act; and if so, what would be an effective, proportional response? This would include number of aim-points, specific aim-points, weapons mix, etc, and are the purview of the intelligence, defense and executive establishments.

      And lastly, no, there is no need to vet our national security policies with allies, the EU, the United Nations, NATO, or anyone else. Taking their counsel is one thing, acting or not acting because they act or don’t is quite another.

  3. After listening to John Kerry’s statements yesterday I’m pretty sure that we are not going to take any military action against Syria. At least not until after Obama goes to the G20 conference next week. That will be the cooling off period and by the time Obama gets back the country (media) will have moved on to the next big story: “Congress returns to Washington after the August recess and the first piece of business being contemplated by the House is taking a 41st vote on repealing Obamacare.” LOL!

    • You could be right, but the president has painted himself into a rather uncomfortable corner – if he doesn’t do anything, he will have no credibility to speak on Syria again, and, of course, Iran will be comforted as to the lack of credibility of Mr Obama’s threats (i.e., he probably won’t do anything to us, either). That could be a grave mistake on Tehran’s part, but of import here is that we will have lost any deterrent leverage, guaranteeing a nuclear Iran. If he does strike without congressional consultation, he will have irritated Congress yet again (although I don’t think he cares about that – he’s set his second term theme of governing by decree), and flouted the Constitution yet again (although he demonstrably doesn’t care about that, either). In the end, I think he’ll strike. Too little, too late, but he can’t leave his “Red Line” threat out there unfulfilled. Even he must realize how weak that makes him look.

  4. Now that Obama has decided that he will consult with Congress before making a military strike do you think Congress will take this matter up immediately when they come back from their August recess? I think they should but I’m betting they won’t. I’m betting that in the House at least they will continue with their primary objective: Repeal / Defund Obamacare. Because they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Ha ha!

    • The Senate will take it up immediately because the President of the Senate (VP Joe Biden) received the bill on the Senate’s behalf – Speaker Boehner received it on behalf of the House. Biden will exert pressure on Senator Reid to move it to the top of the agenda. I imagine the House will also take it up first thing. This is a situation of real-time importance, and does not fall neatly into a partisan divide. Plus, it’s a simple, non-controversial bill – eight “Whereas” statements (laying out the case), and thirteen lines of legislation (in common language – the legislative language will be more complex, as it must refer to specific lines of existing law and insert itself into that text with Article, Section, and Sub-Section numbers, etc). I think it will pass, probably after entirely too much debate time – which will be used to generate camera time. All members who want a copy, have a copy (I’ve got one!), so they can hit the ground running on this one. But we’ll see.

  5. I am hoping that wiser heads prevail on this one. For instance Rand Paul. I’m with him on this one. I suppose that will surprise you. But then maybe not.

    • I’m aghast. Not that you side with Rand Paul, but because, if mass murder doesn’t move you to demand punitive action, what does?! If it were ebola instead of sarin? Nuclear instead of either? These weapons are classified as being equivalent in their prohibition. It’s black-letter law. It’s at the core of the Chemical Weapons Convention, not in the penumbra. Or are you now against treaties and international organizations that bind nations to normative behavior? Or are you for them only when they require the “normalizing” of others?

  6. I am against the United States engaging in any more military adventures in the Middle East unless our country’s national security is being threatened. With Syria that is not the case.

    • OK, fair enough. You cast no value on the commitments of the United States to other nations. It’s clear your president feels that way, just wanted to make sure you share that philosophy.

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