Syrian Military Strikes: Good Cannot Be Done at Expense of Constitutional Order
Humanitarian impulses are often the guise under which intervention is sold to the peoples of the world. One is told that any opposition to state action that has, as its sanction, an unassailable moral impulse desirous of relieving the suffering borne of despotic political regimes betrays the finer human feelings that are supposed to underscore the collective of humanity. The insinuation is clear: a stand against intervention, whether in the form of millions of dollars of aid dollars, which take from one mouth to give to another, or in the form of military action betrays altruism, the crux of human goodness before which were all meant to grovel and proclaim our unworthiness.
But this moral blackmail, this attempt to turn man’s responsibility to reason against himself, is as fallacious as it is odious. Benefit cannot be born of harm. In attacking Syria, President Trump violated the Constitutional order and defaulted on his responsibility as leader. In taking up the protectionist mantle of a people for whom he has no authority, moral or official, to promote, he defaulted on his own oath of office and, by undermining the rule of law, jeopardized the freedom of those people to whom he does have a duty, morally and officially.
It is, in part, Assad’s moral default as a leader that makes him such a heinous figure. He treats government organs as a mere extension of his being, as simply another organ, like a hand, that can be raised to impose his will upon others. Government has one one sole moral purpose: to secure, through an egalitarian rule of law code, the inalienable rights of its citizens. It is by defaulting on is his leadership responsibility, by weaponizing what ought to be a neutral law code and molding it to advance his singular purpose, that Assad is made monstrous. All his other crimes are made possible by this fundamental failure of duty.
It is this, and this alone, that the United States, if it wants to maintain its position of moral supremacy in the world, must critique. Anything else is to insert itself into the affairs of a sovereign nation and to make value-judgments it has no right to make. There is a reflexive principle that applies to rights: whatever capacity one loves in oneself must be respected in another. Nation-states cannot have rights, as these are inherent to individual being by its very nation, but the same reflexive prerogative applies to international respect for jurisdiction: any nation that prizes its sovereignty must respect that of another.
Humanitarian crises, in the face of state-sanctioned brutality, too often evoke an impetus in the gut, a desire to “do something”, if only to alleviate the uncomfortable sense of injustice and vulnerability each individual feels when confronted with images of suffering. Emotion too has a kind of reflexive principle: the suffering borne by another is understood only by imagining oneself in a similar situation. This has the unfortunate effect of making crises, no matter how far removed, personal, and of amplifying the desire to take action that alleviates the harm done. But without familiarity with on-the-ground facts, there is much danger to intervention, particularly that which involves the inevitable destruction that accompanies the deployment of military force. It is reason and analysis that must prevail in times of crisis if long-term good is to be done.
This maxim holds true for those political actors, external to domestic political conflicts, who feel called to take some retaliatory action against those who harm the defenseless, and, by doing so, run roughshod over the rights of the people to whom they have an actual duty.
And yet, they neglect the domestic implications such actions have. In a grimly ironic twist of fate, of rushing to the aid of those who are victims of political despotism, they themselves propagate political despotism by ignoring the rule of law.
This is true of the president’s air strike against Syria.
The Constitution does not grant the president authority to wage war; it merely appoints him chief of the armed forces. It is Congress that has power to declare war. The 1973 War Powers Resolution reaffirms the bilateral spirit of cooperation between coequal branches of the government demanded by the Constitutional structure. This exists to “insure that the collective judgment of both the Congress and the President will apply to the introduction of United States Armed Forces into hostilities.”
In other words, the judgment of one man, no matter how pure his intentions, no matter how solid his reasoning, is not sufficient grounds to drag an entire nation into military conflict. The symbolic role the president plays as head of the government, particularly in international avenues, is simply that: there is no real power attached to this position.
Unilateral military action, such as President Trump recently took in Syria, sets a precedent: it connects the judgments of one man, by dint of his authority, with the full force of the United States government. His discretion is married to the iron-clad force of interpreting and enforcing law.
This is not only contra to the culture of individual sovereignty that is the bedrock of the American political system and anathema to the concept that government derives its “just powers from the consent of the governed” but an attitude not unlike that evinced by despots.
The president’s first and only duty is to the Constitution of the United States; it is this he takes an oath to uphold. He cannot advance an agenda of global good by running roughshod over that which he is sworn to protect.
Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.