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By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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The Sovereign Double-Standard

American foreign policy is full of double standards. But if we observe the hypocrisy of our leaders and statesmen and are scandalized by it—if we look at the Clintons’ personal friendship with Mubarak, John Kerry lunching with the Assads, Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—then we actually misunderstand what “foreign policy” is and does and is for. A double standard is only a scandal if we aspire to and demand consistency and even-handedness, if we believe that we are governed by and follow a regime of impartial laws and order, applying in its majestic equality to the weak and strong alike. But if American foreign policy is anything, it is not even-handed and impartial, and international law is the least of its concerns. It is selfish, interested, aggressive, petty, and vindictive. It is a state arrogating to itself the right to make arbitrary choices, to make the rules while other countries only follow them. And to prove that distinction—to demonstrate that while the US and its allies can behave according to one standard, other nations can be stripped of that privilege, at will—the US must not only establish “red lines,” and enforce them, but it is the very arbitrary nature of those red lines which allows them to function as signs on the international stage. Lawlessness is how a state proves itself sovereign; submission to law is the sign of the weak.

After all, there is nothing particularly legal about Obama’s proposed war with Syria, just as there was nothing particularly illegal about the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons (assuming it was the Assad regime). The United States is a signatory to the United Nations, and without UN Security Council approval, the United States has no legal right to begin a new war in Syria; to do so would be to break its legal bond. At the same time, since Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is difficult to argue that the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons is particularly distinct from all the other war crimes it has been committing, now, for over two years; if you kill with gas, the victims are no more or less dead than if you kill with bullets, bombs, and fire. Both are war crimes; it is a double standard to object strenuously (and violently) to one war crime but sigh and throw up your hands helplessly at the other.update: A few people have observed on twitter that while Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 (one of the very few states not to have done so), they did sign–in 1968–the 1925 Geneva Protocol. So, I could be wrong in my assertion that the chemical weapons attack last week was only a regular war crime, and not a war crime plus another kind of crime (and my wording is a bit imprecise, there). But while one could also make the  argument that the 1925 protocol doesn’t actually criminalize what Syria did–an “uprising” being legally distinct from a war–my point was just that a distinction between one kind of killing and another is being drawn that has no real basis in legality, just in desire. Obama wanted a legal fig leaf for war, asked for it, and got it. That point stands, I think.

“Legality” only obscures the real issue, which is why we are hearing so much talk about it, why so many commentators are pretending it matters. To argue about whether or not the US’s attack on Syria would be legal—and to bicker and argue about whether or not the use of chemical weapons is outlawed, or simply breaks an international “norm”—is to maintain the fiction that the world is governed by a system of voluntary contractual obligations, to pretend that—as Hobbes and Locke and contract theory more generally demand—the behavior of international actors is regulated and controlled by a sovereign set of rules and laws that we have all, at some primal originary moment, agreed to be regulated by. Condemning the US for its illegality or observing that Syria is not specifically banned from using chemical weapons demonstrates an unfounded faith in international law’s relevance. But international law only constrains to the extent that its enforcers are able to enforce it. In practice, the actions and dictates of the powerful are what define and describe the regime of “legality” to which everyone else must submit. This is why the United States is rather explicitly admitting that its actions in Syria would or will be face-saving demonstrations of power, rather than instrumental interventions.White Phosphorus being used above Falluja, 2004 Everyone knows that the United States cannot control the outcome of the Syrian civil war, even the most hawkish politicians and commentators. Obama and his cabinet understand it best of all. But the outcome of the Syrian civil war is precisely not what this is about; it is about showing that the US has the power to arbitrarily dictate to smaller and weaker nations. Chemical weapons began to matter the moment Obama declared them to be a red line, and after that point, they were all that mattered.

This is not cynicism. Cynicism would be to observe a lack of consistency in American actions—to observe hypocrisy as simply the absence of good faith—when what we are seeing is, itself, a consistent system of rules and injunctions that have defined American identity for many, many years. The need for the US to show itself above the rules is, itself, a rule it must follow. And even a law professor, once he has become sovereign ruler of the United States, comes to be ruled by the sovereign law of the United States: to remain what it is, sovereign, the world’s only superpower, the world policeman, the decider rather than the obedient.

It doesn’t matter that Bush was (kind of) a cowboy, and that Obama was (kind of) a law professor; all of that became irrelevant, or at least superfluous, when they became American presidents. To embody the sovereign will of the United States—to be the world’s only superpower, the world policeman—is to be bound by the logic of arbitrary power, to be forced to occupy and preserve the state of exception in which American exceptionalism is founded. Because the United States is powerful, it has the power to decide where and how and when and to whom the rules apply. If it does not have that power, it is not powerful; if it is not powerful, it is not the United States. The stakes for every American president, then, are existential. If Syria is allowed to cross the red line unpunished, it will threaten the very basis of American identity, the exceptionalism which makes America the solitary sovereign actor on the world stage. Punishing them for doing so—with a handful of inconsequential cruise missiles or even a more aggressive and disastrous bombing campaign—would accomplish no more than re-instating that narrative, that the United States is, still, the decider. But that’s all its meant to accomplish.

“We” don’t necessarily want Obama to bomb Syria. Public opinion is against it, for all sorts of rational, reasonable reasons. But there is also an American public that demands a president who says what we might have difficulty saying ourselves: that America is the best, the biggest, and the boss. We don’t want a president who looks “weak”; we want a president who is a decider. We expect it, in the sense that it is what seems natural to us, so natural we don’t miss it until it’s gone. Which is why we have a president who talks like a law professor but acts like a cowboy: we have difficulty admitting that we want to be kings and queens of the world—that we expect America to make the rules which others follow—but if Obama didn’t behave like a king on the world stage, if he didn’t act like the leader of the free world, he would be seen as weak. And so would we. We would be unsettled. Which is the real problem, the need to believe that “we” are better than “them.” If they get uppity, we smash them down, and if we don’t, who are we? It is natural for us to be on top, so if we have a president who does not maintain that position—especially if that president is a black man whose middle name is Hussein—we will look at him and make him the problem. You do not represent us, we will say; we are American and you are… something else . You are weak and we are strong, and you are making us weak. We will blame him, personally, for the ego ideal he has failed to live up to, the fantasy he has failed to enable. No one understands the dynamic better than Barack Obama, a president who has spent his entire political career demonstrating to white people that he is one of them. No one has more to lose than one of “them” who has, at long last, managed to be accepted into the ranks of “Us.” And so, he acts unilaterally, a cowboy obeying exactly what “we” want him to do.


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12 Responses to “The Sovereign Double-Standard”

  1. Anonymous says:

    This is great, Aaron.

  2. LBC says:

    Good article

  3. Anonymous says:

    Very nice, but I want to take a moment to emphatically and proudly declare that, to the greatest extent possible, I am not among in any way, this “we” of whom you speak.

    Thanks, again.

  4. Tim Truett says:

    Thought provoking article. Thank you. But I think your characterization of Obama as having spent his “entire political career demonstrating to white people that he is one of them” is insulting and wrong. You’ve remarkably well described the modern presidential dilemma as a tightrope between “right” and “exceptional”. You’ve shown it as an important, no critical, distinction. Then you collapsed into name calling, one that strikes me as racially oriented. Mind you I don’t mean “racist” in the usual sense, but as an existing reality or criteria that to me does not seem at all relevant or present in this president’s decision making.

  5. I’m not entirely sure you’re right about Syria’s right to use chemical weapons. My understanding of the Chemical Weapons Convention is that, as with a lot of UN Conventions, it became implicitly binding on all member states when it reached a certain threshold of acceptance. Additionally, the CWC is not the only instrument banning their use: the 1925 Geneva Protocol banned them as a weapon of war.

    That begs a question, though: chemical weapons are still legal to use against one’s own civilians in non-wartime situations (e.g. tear gas and pepper spray, which may be used by police forces without violating the protocols).

    Lethal gas weapons, though, seem like they must be a violation of human rights on a massive scale. But international law is, as you note, an odd thing sometimes. And the difference between atrocious and illegal can be hard to understand.

  6. The Rancid Honeytrap says:

    Your last paragraph is so awful — so full of everything fashionable and stupid in left politics at the moment — it reads like parody. Happy to see you’ve come some way from sitting on a fence and yelling bomb Libya.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I liked the article. Couple thoughts–

    1. That red line was there whether Obama explicitly mentioned it or not. Chemical warfare happens to be a terrible way to target enemies and avoid civilians. It’s also mostly torturous, inspiring terror more than accomplishing a legitimate military objective.

    2. That last paragraph got real racial, real quick. Obama wants “white people” to accept him, so he’s adopted their perspective? But “white people” are hardly a monolithic group. (Just saying.)

  8. mutex7 says:

    There seems to be virtually no concern as to WHY Assad would use chemical weapons in a civil war he is already winning without using them. David Brooks says we need to increase the costs of using chemical weapons for Assad but I’ve yet to hear any, even hypothetical, benefits he gets from using them. The people who stand to benefit from this attack, and the coming intervention by the Obama regime, are the rebels, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan etc. but certainly not the Syrian “regime”. There have even been reports that US government intelligence services question whether Assad ordered the chemical attack but that the Obama regime still feels it has the right to hold him responsible (whatever that means). It is unlikely that Assad will experience any personal discomfort from whatever form the US attack takes. It will fall on the lives of ordinary Syrian citizens to bear that part of the “responsibility”. Increasingly it appears that the goal of the Obama regime is to keep the predominantly Sunni rebels fighting the Syria government as long as possible in a war of attrition that weakens them both. For the US to cite international ‘norms’, moral obligation and the ‘responsibility to protect’ on a ‘case by case’ basis is beyond hypocritical. There seems to be no limit to the degree of man’s inhumanity to his fellow man the US is willing to tolerate/support in pursuit of its ‘national interests’.

  9. brmull says:

    This is a great essay that touches on a lot of uncomfortable truths in a short space. Add some nuance and it could really be fantastic. Most nations have signed the cluster bomb treaty but the US still uses them. It even sells them to rogue regimes. Is anyone saying that the US crossed a red line? I don’t think so. It helps to be big man on campus.

  10. brmull says:

    What makes sense is that the chemical weapons were unleashed by a renegade faction of the army. To those who think that couldn’t happen consider that the rebel commander is a recently defected army general.

  11. Bombedbyuk/us says:

    I feel that I can agree with your article’s most issues. In a kind of college cafeteria talk.
    It comes across as “liberal left”.
    With a strong psychological backbone.
    That throughs people off.
    They get up from Freud’s bed feeling better.
    Down the elevator goes and they walk into capitalism ..untill the next session.
    Your next, or somebody’s next article.
    …Meanwhile drones, missiles, sanctions, the press do their work.
    Who are they working for ..really?
    Do you believe in Simulacra?
    Has it occured to you that a psychological glitch may forbid you to see that you are a simulation of free speach? By
    A very usefull and necessary component of The Machine?
    Do yourself a favor and speak the
    unspeakable among leftist liberals.
    Or forever shut up.

  12. The Rancid Honeytrap says:

    That the chemical weapons may have been a manufactured casus belli stands outside Bady’s trustworthy conformism, which, for all its showy realism (US foreign policy has double standards! Who knew?) basically accepts the official story behind this conflict uncritically.

    Indeed, very little in the way of actual facts about Syria intrude at all, since those might suggest there is more to US foreign policy and this particular conflict than the expression of the country’s hungry, hillbilly heart that, for Bady, explains everything, from Obama’s bottomless shittiness (a law professor no less!) to a war that almost everyone opposes.

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