Ukraine, Syria, and iIliberal unilateralism: Anne-Marie Slaughter in yesterday’s New York Times

In an op-ed in The New York Times yesterday, Anne-Marie Slaughter, president and chief executive of the New America Foundation and from 2009 to 2011 director of policy planning at the State Department, argues that the Obama White House should have listened to her and others in the State Department (including presumably her boss, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) who argued that the United States should provide weapons to the moderate opposition in Syria as the country began its descent into civil war. Had it done so, she argues, it “could have stopped the carnage spreading today in Syria and in Iraq.”

This claim strikes me as implausible in the extreme.

It is possible that an American decision to provide arms to “moderates” in Syria might have affected the balance of forces inside Syria today, although even that is unclear – my guess is that Islamists would have dominated the opposition, particularly in the north, regardless. But what is extremely unlikely is that American arms would have reduced the level of violence or kept it from spreading. The so-called “moderate” opposition was, and to the extent it still exists is, divided, including the so-called Syrian National Council, which was in any case based outside the country with unclear support among the various fighting forces inside Syria. What arming factions within the opposition would have done is give the United States a dog in the fight, one that American international prestige would have required Washington to support with more weapons and even direct intervention if the tide of battle turned against it. That was a very reasonable conclusion for the Administration to make at the time, and it remains a reasonable one to this day, even with the benefit of hindsight. The fact that things are awful now in Syria and Iraq hardly means that they would be less awful had American arms begun flowing into Syria two years ago.

The passage in the piece that I found most objectionable, however, is where Slaughter argues that the United States should have intervened  militarily in Syria even without a use of force authorization from the UN Security Council (which of course it would not have obtained given the Russian and Chinese vetoes as permanent members). She concludes:

On the legal side, we should act in both countries because we face a threat to global peace and security, precisely the situation the United Nations Security Council was established to address. If nations like Russia and China block action for their own narrow interests, we should act multilaterally, as we did in Kosovo, and then seek the Council’s approval after the fact. The United Nations Charter was created for peace among the people of the world, not as an instrument of state power.

Earlier in the piece, Slaughter likewise makes clear that she rejects the argument that intervening in Iraq is less risky than it would have been in Syria because in Iraq we are being asked for support by the country’s legally-recognized government, whereas in Syria we would have been intervening to support the armed opposition. That providing military support to the government of a UN member state is perfectly legal under the UN Charter, whereas intervening militarily to engineer regime change is not, is seemingly irrelevant to Slaughter.

It is difficult for me to understand how people who express outrage at Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crime (which was indeed outrageous) can make an argument like this. Why, one wonders, is it appropriate for the United States to act unilaterally (the “act multilaterally” aspect of her argument would be more honestly rendered as “unilaterally if necessary but multilaterally if possible”) and in clear violation of international law, but inappropriate for Russia to annex Crimea? Why is American military intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds without Security Council authorization not a green light for Russia to intervene militarily in Ukraine on “humanitarian grounds”?

In my view, there are circumstances when the use of force on humanitarian grounds without Security Council authorization is justified, but those circumstances are very rare. Above all, it should be very clear that military intervention will work and not make things worse. That was certainly not the case in Syria in 2011. But beyond that, what is most disturbing about Slaughter’s article is her apparent dismissal of international law and international norms. It may be that she is writing as a political mouthpiece for Hillary Clinton as Clinton prepares to run for president. If so, and if Clinton is positioning herself politically as similarly disdainful of international law and norms, American relations with Russia and China are going to be even more fraught in the coming years. The tragedy is that these essentially liberal laws and norms were championed by the United States after the end of World War II, and American liberals now appear to be joining American conservatives in undermining and even destroying them.