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.
“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. 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.