Sunday, September 22, 2013

US allies and its wars of choice

America’s wars of choice raise issues for allies

By RAMESH THAKUR
The Japan Times
Saturday, 21 September 2013

 The by-now defused crisis of threatened U.S.-led military strikes on Syria raised once again the difficult question of how Washington’s allies should deal with U.S. wars of choice rather than necessity.

Should the United States fall under armed attack, Australia would respond spontaneously, wholeheartedly and unreservedly to fight shoulder to shoulder with kith and kin, as it should. Japan, constitutionally barred from providing combat help overseas, could still offer fulsome diplomatic support.

In an unequal alliance relationship, the same does not hold in reverse: The guarantor may not always find it expedient to come to the military defense of client-state allies. It is therefore in Japan’s and Australia’s twin interest to create a world in which the use of force by major powers is tightly fettered by the constraints of law; and to ensure that if either of them is attacked, the U.S. has the military muscle and political will to defend it.

Actions that damage global norms and weaken U.S. capacity-cum-will to deploy military force overseas are doubly damaging to the balance of normative and security interests of allies. Vassal states will support Washington regardless. Good friends will work to rescue the U.S. from self harm.
In retrospect, in Iraq in 2003, France and Germany proved the better long-term allies in trying to stop, while Australia and Britain chose instant gratification in joining the march to folly.

The Obama administration was intensely irritated that on an issue and at a time when the ethic of conviction and the ethic of consequences intersect, others refused to support punitive military strikes on Syria. But what the rest of the world saw was policy confusion (what exactly would have been the point of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “unbelievably small” strike?), selective indignation seeped in double standards and unproven allegations, lack of clarity on goals and means, and a determination to enforce humanitarian norms inside Syria’s sovereign jurisdiction by flouting higher-order global norms on the international use of force. The latter are much more critical to most countries’ national security and also to world stability.

In all such cases, Australia is torn between the emotional pull of loyalty to its principal ally, outrage at large-scale civilian killings by a brutal dictator and, in the very month in which it assumed presidency of the Security Council, fidelity to U.N. principles and obligations to promote universal respect for the U.N. Charter law governing both the internal and international use of force.

Geographical location, geopolitical exposure and far-flung civilizational, commercial, strategic and environmental interests give both Japan and Australia a big stake in a rules-based global order. No principle of international law permits one state to attack another to uphold a multilateral treaty.

The legal mechanisms and remedies for dealing with alleged crimes of chemical weapons use, even by nonsignatories, are set out in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the 1925 Geneva Protocol. These would signify collective determination to uphold the global norm against chemical weapons use and also strengthen the treaty regimes. Unilateral strikes by contrast would take the world back into the law of the jungle dressed up as international law.

Obama failed to communicate why an attack on Syria is in the U.S. national interest, why it would uphold the principle of international law on interstate relations, how the strikes would weaken Syrian President Bashar Assad without strengthening and emboldening al-Qaida, how they would protect Christians and other minorities from being attacked by Islamist extremists, and how they would end the vicious civil war.

The CWC translates the world’s moral repugnance of chemical weapons into a legally binding treaty. Signed by 189 states, it has been in force since 1997. Only five have not signed — Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not yet ratified.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has overseen the verified destruction of more than 80 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of almost 72,000 metric tons of chemical agents. Australia played an influential role in its negotiation and should use its presidency of the U.N. Security Council to promote universalization of the treaty.

Almost all countries and peoples abhor chemical weapons and support the enforceable ban on its use. But the prohibition on the use of military force against other states except in self-defense when attacked or under U.N. authorization is much more critical to the direct security of Asia-Pacific countries in the shadow of China as it contests the primacy of U.S. influence in the Pacific.

Until World War I, going to war was an attribute of sovereign statehood. The only protection against armed attack was to build national defense forces, which increased the risk of a defeat for the potential aggressor and also raised the costs of victory should it win.

To reduce international anarchy and cross-border armed conflicts, the society of states moved to limit the right to wage wars in the League of Nations and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact. The U.N. has spawned a vast corpus of laws to outlaw unilateral wars and create a robust norm against interstate aggression. It is not in the security interest of most states to return to the pre-U.N. world of constant warfare.

On top of the stake in the normative world order, Australia, Japan and all other U.S. allies also have selfish interests in ensuring that Washington is able and willing to defend them. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have overextended the U.S. military, made others less fearful of Washington, damaged its financial health and global reputation, made America war-weary and contributed to the rise of neo-isolationism. All these consequences are inimical to the security interests of U.S. allies and would have intensified with illegal strikes on Syria. We all owe a vote of thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin for rescuing Obama from self-harm.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is the coeditor of “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy” and “The Chemical Weapons Convention: Implementation, Challenges and Opportunities.”


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Open letter to the Prime Minister-elect


Below is the text of an open letter to the Prime Minister-elect, the Hon. Tony Abbott MP, signed by me and a number of distinguished Australians who support CIWI’s cause, was published in today’s edition of The Age. The original may be viewed online at An open letter on war to the new PM.

BEGINS
Among the many big-picture items missing from Australia's recent election campaign was foreign policy. While Australians were voting, the United States President was seeking US congressional and international approval to launch a punitive military action against the government of Syria, which would almost certainly bring further suffering and disruption to populations in the region.

We welcomed the news that the US would hold off on a military strike because Syria has ''already agreed'' to an initiative by Russia for Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons stocks to international control. However, the danger of another disastrous military intervention persists.

The newly elected Australian government may soon have to decide whether, how and under what circumstances we would support our major ally in another armed intervention in the Middle East.

Ten years ago Australia strongly supported the US invasion of Iraq on the decision of the prime minister. We believe that on this occasion Australia should independently assess how best we can serve the interests of the people of Syria and broader international security interests.

There is a related, fundamentally important issue that will apply not only now in relation to Syria but every time the possibility of Australian support or involvement in military action is considered. How and by whom should a decision to send Australian troops to war be made - by the prime minister or by a broader consultative process?

We invite prime minister-elect Tony Abbott to tell the Australian people whether he believes that a prime minister should continue to have the authority to take Australia into international armed conflict on her/his own, or whether he would support a bill requiring parliamentary debate and approval before the Australian Defence Force is deployed overseas in combat.

Specifically, in relation to concerns about weapons of mass destruction, does he believe Australia should defer to the established international channels for WMD verification, monitoring and compliance?

The importance of these issues is stark. There has been no policy review of the decision made by Australia's leadership in 2003 to invade Iraq, and no inquiry into the decision-making process to draw out lessons or make recommendations for the future.

We appear now to be at risk of repeating the errors of 2003. Before the election, the Rudd government made supportive comments about US plans for a military strike against Syria, despite the absence of a report from UN weapons inspectors, and in the absence of authorisation from the UN Security Council. While Coalition comments at the time appeared to be commendably more cautious, a commitment to a proper and transparent decision-making process is lacking.

At the same time, the British Parliament has considered and rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's bid for British involvement, President Barack Obama has decided to turn to Congress to seek wider political endorsement of his planned military strike, and French President Francois Hollande has also decided to consult his parliament.

At the recent G20 summit, a majority of participating governments did not support the case for US military action in Syria without an authorising UN Security Council resolution. The situation in Britain demonstrates the valuable role of legislatures in acting as a brake on the impulsive use of executive power.

Australia's policy is particularly crucial during our current term on the UN Security Council, and our presidency of the council this month. The responsibility to respect and protect the pre-eminent role of the United Nations in examining the evidence and all possible responses to security threats and violations, weighs heavily on us.

International law states that no military action is legal unless authorised by the Security Council or in a country's own self-defence. While the crisis in Syria demands an international response, military intervention would be the most risky, destructive and costly option, and one that would make a terrible situation worse.

We urge that the lessons of 2003 be heeded, and that Australia follow the lead of the majority of our allies and major regional partners in withholding support for the course of action now being proposed by President Obama.

We also urge that parliamentary debate and approval become standard before the Australian Defence Force is deployed overseas in combat. If Parliament cannot be persuaded that Australia should be at war, then the case for authorising it is not sufficiently strong. If MHRs and senators are required to debate and vote on a case for war, they will be individually and collectively responsible for Australia's decision.

Deploying the Australian Defence Force into international armed conflict is the gravest decision a government can make. This is not a decision for a leader acting alone, nor for a leader in concert with a small group of cabinet colleagues. Australians have the right to expect that such a decision would receive the most rigorous scrutiny of all possible consequences, including humanitarian, military, legal, strategic and political, by all those elected to represent us.

This article is signed by:

Paul Barratt AO, former secretary, Department of Defence
John Menadue AO, former secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet
Malcolm Fraser, former Liberal prime minister
Professor Ian Maddocks AM, Senior Australian of the Year
Professor Peter Baume AC, former federal Liberal minister
Garry Woodard, retired ambassador
Professor Ramesh Thakur, former UN assistant secretary-general
Elizabeth Evatt AC, former judge
Kellie Merritt, widow of Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, who was killed in Iraq

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Right way to send a message

Right way to send a message

Ramesh Thakur

The Japan Times

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

CANBERRA – For a U.S. president who first gained prominence for his gift with words, Barack Obama can be remarkably loose with his language no matter how grave the context and potential consequences. His policy conundrum on Syria stems from a casual drawing of a red line at a press conference last year if chemical weapons were used. Now, to avoid red faces — also known as loss of presidential and national credibility — the red line ultimatum requires a demonstration of U.S. military power robust enough to avoid being mocked but not so sharp as to tip the scales decisively against the Assad regime. This is what passes for strategy and deep thinking in Washington today.

Another example of inappropriate language by a commander in chief was that Washington wants to fire a shot across the bow in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons. But a shot across the bow is always restricted to a warning shot that deliberately avoids hitting the target ship.

A third example is the need to send a message to Assad and other users of biochemical weapons that such barbarity will not be tolerated. There are three problems with this: the choice of communication tools, how the message is read by the intended recipient and how it is decoded by the vast global audience.

On the first point, possibly the best riposte came from a man at a town hall meeting in Ohio. The BBC’s Mark Mardell reports that he said: “What are cruise missiles going to do but kill people? If he wants to send a message, text him.” Were that the president and Congress possessed such clarity of vision on purpose and the link between goal and action.

On the second, the biggest worry is that many regimes will conclude the only way to ward off a unilateral U.S. attack rooted in arrogance of power is to get nuclear weapons. The logic of this is false — deterrence doesn’t quite work that way — but the political psychology could prove compelling for some regimes.

The argument was first raised by Chinese officials after NATO bombed Serbia in 1999: Would you have attacked Slobodan Milosevic if he had the bomb, they asked? The argument firmed in 2003 with the illegal war of aggression on Iraq that had been disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction by the United Nations (not that Washington ever credited the U.N. for the stellar achievement), alongside a hands-off policy toward North Korea which did have the bomb (but not oil). Will a Franco-U.S. air strike on Syria harden or soften Iranian interest in the bomb?

To the wider global audience, finally, there are also two unintended but unmistakable messages being sent. For one, all the talk of governments reflecting popular will is hollow, empty rhetoric. In 2003, both Western and other publics strongly opposed the war but too many journalists, whose professional training and ethics should make them skeptical rather than credulous of unsubstantiated official press releases and deep background briefings, were seduced by government spin, propaganda and misinformation.

The people were proved right. That same broken record is playing on the world’s airwaves. Britain’s parliament narrowly reflected broad popular opposition to the war. France is keen on military action in defiance of its own people. Even in the U.S., despite allegations of chemical weapons use by the regime, public support for U.S. military strikes is restricted to between 20-29 percent in different polls.

Thus once again the people have a firmer and surer grasp of the underlying reality than their governments. Yet the administration is determined to send its muddled message to Damascus. If Congress does give it the green light, what exactly is the message on democratic consent that is being sent across the world? That this is a shot across the bows of democratic ships of state?

For another, Washington is happy to trash international law because it can. Just as in Iraq in 2003, any attack on Syria without Security Council sanction would be an exercise of raw American power in defiance of lawful international authority.

In Kosovo in 1999 and in the Syria debate today, many fall back into the comforting distinction between legality and legitimacy. In some contexts, that distinction is real: A Nelson Mandela challenging the legal system of apartheid in South Africa could indeed claim the mantle of legitimacy and remain proud of a firm moral compass.

But it’s harder to claim legitimacy for circumventing U.N. paralysis produced by the very rules you yourself insist on freezing. If Britain, France and the U.S. were leading a campaign to rid the veto in the Security Council, they could claim legitimacy for escaping the stalemate produced by Chinese and Russian vetoes. In fact Washington has used the veto more often than China and Russia combined since the end of the Cold War.

Consider an analogy, although the argument would have resonated better before the last Ashes series between Australia and England. The Indian cricket board has stubbornly refused to use technology to rectify glaring umpiring errors. Suppose India were to lose a match and a series as a result of an absolute shocker of an umpiring decision. There would be little sympathy for any howls of outrage from the Indian board. Yet that is what the Western permanent members of the Security Council demand in seeking to escape the veto-imposed impasse while clinging tenaciously to their own veto right.

Moreover, when Mandela took on apartheid, he was prepared to and did pay a pretty heavy personal price. Many fine individuals throughout history have refused to surrender their conscience to their kings and been imprisoned or executed. They deserve profound respect for their courage and conviction. Western humanitarian warriors who rain death and destruction in violation of international law draw on international legitimacy as a strategy for escaping any legal consequences and personal accountability. To be credible, leaders who elevate unilateral imprimaturs of legitimacy above international law need to be in the dock at The Hague.

Should Obama gain congressional authorization, he will enjoy domestic legitimacy. The just-concluded Group of 20 summit in St. Petersburg shows that he will still lack international legitimacy.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University





On Syria, Tony Abbott has been right to show caution

On Syria, Tony Abbott has been right to show caution

Ramesh Thakur
The Guardian (Australia)
Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Tony Abbott has so far been a measured and calm leader-in-waiting who has learnt from the Iraq experience a decade ago, instead of a headstrong and impetuous warrior on the charge

Prime minister-elect Tony Abbott said during his campaign that Australia should stay out of any military involvement in Syria. Why? Because we are a middle power that carries heft in particular regions but have only limited ability to influence many global events, and because the Syrian civil war is a case of "baddies versus baddies".

The comment was immediately dubbed a gaffe by some commentators. Several Labor leaders pointed to it as proof that "simpleton" Abbott lacks the nous to represent Australia on the world stage, arguing he doesn't have the knowledge, experience, gravitas needed to represent Australia on the world stage. In fact, Abbott showed great maturity in counselling caution on such a complex issue, rather than rushing into a hasty endorsement of threatened military strikes.

David Cameron noted in his failed attempt to rally parliamentary support for British participation in the strikes, "the well of public opinion has been well and truly poisoned by the Iraq episode". Indeed. The debate showed three sets of concerns animating Britain’s MPs that are all highly pertinent to how Australia will respond: facts yet to be established, unclear legal basis of strikes, and insufficient thought to the goal and aftermath of the strikes. All three point to a posture of prudence for Australia.

On facts, over 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war. In most accounts, there is an elision which implies that this number is the total number of victims of regime brutality. The "baddies versus baddies" description better captures the truth: the total includes civilians, rebel fighters and government soldiers. This is not to deny the scale of the horror, but to nuance it. Graphic videos of chemical weapons victims compete with equally graphic videos of rebels executing soldiers – footage so shocking it made New York Times staffers physically ill.

On chemical weapons use specifically, we can be certain they have been used. But by whom? Strategic logic and circumstantial evidence are contradictory. The Assad regime has flouted the global norm to be among a tiny handful of countries not to sign the convention banning chemical weapons and destroying existing stockpiles. But elements on both sides are callous enough to use chemical weapons on innocent civilians. The rebels have been losing the war and are desperate to entangle the US on their side.

President Obama, perhaps unwisely, has drawn a red line around the use of these weapons. The regime, as the side winning the war, had no reason to use the weapons and every reason not to – a point that President Vladimir Putin has emphasised repeatedly. The evidence presented to date, while not definitive (there are unconfirmed reports of a Sunni Arab state supplying chemical weapons to the rebels), does point the finger of criminality at the regime. But did the rebels use chemical weapons on a smaller scale in March? In July, Turkish police reportedly caught al Nusra jihadists with 2kg of sarin.

On law, the only two legal grounds for military attacks are in defence against armed attack, or when authorised by the UN. Loose talk of invoking the responsibility to protect – the original version of which was authored by Gareth Evans and me back in 2001 – ignores the requirement that it must be routed through the Security Council, be in conformity with the UN Charter, and be protective, not retributive. A one-off limited unilateral strike by the US and France would violate all three conditions.

Which then raises the final question: what exactly is the point of a "narrow" and "limited" strike, how would it impact the stability of this strategically vital region, and how is it connected to a wider diplomatic strategy for resolving the Syria conflict? If it is one off, Assad can confidently go on the offensive afterwards with a free hand to do whatever he feels necessary. There is no clarity about how, where and by what means his allies – China, Russia, Iran, Shia militias – would retaliate. Russia’s attitude is described by one Middle East experts as: “in a race across a minefield, it is wise to let other runners overtake you.”

If the strikes do lead to Assad’s ouster, power would likely quickly fall into the hands of an even more murderous anti-western regime allied to al-Qaida. The ouster of Saddam Hussein in effect delivered Iraq to Iran. Does Washington really want to deliver Syria to al-Qaida next?

Abbott has been the more measured and calm leader-in-waiting who has learnt from the Iraq experience a decade ago, instead of a headstrong and impetuous warrior on the charge. He could play a more constructive role through Australia’s presidency of the Security Council by neither criticising Washington nor joining a new coalition for yet another war of choice in the Middle East.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Is America now becoming an international outlaw?

Is America now becoming an international outlaw?

The Japan Times, Wednesday, 4 September 2013

THE HAGUE – A week has proven to be a long time in international politics. On Aug. 26, arriving in Europe, NATO military strikes on Syria seemed both inevitable and imminent to punish it for alleged chemical weapons use on Aug. 21. On Thursday, the British Parliament rejected, by a 285-272 vote, the government motion that would have paved the way for British participation. Prime Minister David Cameron said he would respect the vote. By Friday, the United States was looking decidedly lonely and exposed in its hard-line stance that military attacks were still necessary and could be launched without U.N. sanction.

When Barack Obama succeeded George W. Bush as U.S. president, the world, sick of the latter’s triumphalist, in-your-face unilateralism, heaved a collective sigh of relief. How ironic then that Obama risks making the U.S. the biggest international outlaw of our times.

Consider four examples. The intensified use of drones to kill foreign-based enemies has been described in a joint study by Stanford and New York University law schools — two of the world’s leading law faculties — as violating international law, international humanitarian law, international human rights law and possibly also U.S. law. The creation of an uber surveillance state that spies massively and routinely on millions of Americans and foreigners has stirred an angry backlash. The refusal to prosecute the torturers and their legal enablers from the Bush regime, while pursuing, prosecuting and persecuting whistleblowers of government malfeasance, shows a strange perversion of priorities in the land of the free and brave.

Then there is the gathering Syria crisis so eerily reminiscent of Iraq in 2003 that the reprise seems scarcely credible. Unlike Iraq a decade ago, there actually is a brutal civil war going on in which 100,000 people have been killed, including soldiers, militants and civilians. That chemical weapons were used seems undeniable. But we do not know which chemical agents were used, what the casualties were and, most critically, who used them.

Elements on both sides are callous enough to use chemical weapons on innocent civilians. Western powers insist they have proof of regime culpability. After the Colin Powell theater of 2003, that will not convince a skeptical Western and international public. They will demand hard evidence. As things stand, strategic logic suggests strongly that the regime had everything to lose and the rebels much to gain by using chemical weapons and pointing the finger of criminality at Syrian President Bashar Assad. But circumstantial evidence points powerfully to regime culpability: the scale of use, the types of rockets used to deliver them, the direction from which they were fired, etc.

Fortuitously, there is an expert U.N. inspection team in country that should be given the mandate and time to forensically establish the facts and attribute guilt. The U.N. Security Council would be as criminally wrong not to mandate them as to authorize military reprisal before they have reported.
Military action without U.N. authorization would violate international law. No foreign country has been attacked by Syria. Other than self-defense against armed external attack, only U.N. authorization provides legal cover for military strikes. The international community cannot be collapsed into the FUKUS (France, U.K. and U.S.) coalition of the willing.

The Kosovo precedent from 1999 is no help. Contrary to the dominant NATO view, majority world opinion is that at best, that operation was illegal but legitimate in the circumstances; at worst, it was both illegal and illegitimate. This despite the fact that NATO had a U.N.-endorsed partial enforcement role in the Balkans for several years before the 1999 intervention, and that the Balkans is on Europe’s very borders.

Iraq in 2003 is the more relevant comparison, including a U.N. team that needs more time to complete its job on the ground.

The one significant development since 2003 is the unanimous adoption of the responsibility to protect (R2P) norm in 2005. As one of the main authors of the original R2P report in 2001, let me say two things. First, the use of chemical weapons does constitute a war crime and a crime against humanity, thereby triggering R2P which covers four atrocity crimes in all (the others being genocide and ethnic cleansing). The U.N. secretary general’s special advisers were right to call attention to this. If use is proven and guilt established, the U.N. as the custodian of our collective conscience must take appropriately tough action and hold the perpetrators criminally accountable.

But they failed to speak truth to power by not emphasizing, at a time when the FUKUS leaders were uttering public threats of military strikes unilaterally if necessary, that R2P action must be U.N.-authorized, in conformity with the U.N. Charter, and for civilian protection, not punishment. Not only did their statement lack even-handed balance. Worse, they risked becoming unwitting pawns (or Lenin’s useful idiots) in the Western strategy of escalating the crisis to unilateral military strikes, and so delegitimizing the very norm they are tasked to uphold and promote. Those clamoring for war could use the sentence “All these crimes must be investigated immediately, and those responsible for committing them held to account” to their own hawkish ends.

We worked hard in 2001 to craft R2P to distinguish it from the deeply controversial NATO “humanitarian intervention” in Kosovo. We then spent many years convincing several skeptical governments that this was a change of substance, nut just language. If NATO were to launch military strikes on Syria by misusing R2P language, they will kill R2P. They will also sow the seeds of NATO’s own destruction, for it will have been transformed from the original alliance to protect members from an attack by the mighty Soviet Union, into an alliance to wage an aggressive war against a country outside Europe that has not attacked a single NATO member.

Fortunately, in a forceful speech at The Hague on Aug. 28, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon emphasized the importance of the Security Council process for military action to be lawful.

To increasing numbers, it is Western powers who appear addicted to acts of serial aggression across the Middle East. They do neither themselves nor the world any favors by Orwellian talk of enforcing international law. Only those who show fidelity to law in their own actions can enforce it on the outlaws.

One wonders at which point will the Nobel committee cry: “Enough! We want our peace prize back, Mr. Obama.”

Ramesh Thakur, a former U.N. assistant secretary general and one of the authors of “The Responsibility to Protect,” is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.


Monday, September 2, 2013

Once again, US rushing to attack without facts

Ramesh Thakur, “Once again, U.S. rushing to attack without facts”
The Japan Times, Friday, 30 August 2013

CANBERRA – You could not make this up. On Aug. 26, the Western media concluded that some form of military action against Syria by the United States, United Kingdom and France was inevitable. The same day, a Foreign Policy article argued that CIA files prove the U.S. knowingly helped Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons against Iran in 1988 with intelligence on Iranian troop formations, location and movements. And they wonder why the rest of the world becomes yearly more cynical about Western motivations and hypocrisy.

Allegations are backed by horrific pictures and videos that chemical weapons were used to attack civilians in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured by unspecified nerve agents. The UN demanded prompt access to the sites by its team to sift through the evidence, establish facts and apportion culpability.

The West does not help its credibility problem by jumping from allegations that chemical weapons might have been used by one conflict party, to conclusions that they were used by the regime and therefore military retaliation is justified and necessary. China and Russia have called for calm until facts are established and warned against any unilateral military action. Three critical questions need answering with cool heads instead of succumbing to the mass hysteria of exclamation marks: the facts, possible responses, and unilateral action without U.N. authorization.

Assertions that Syrian President Bashar Assad is guilty of chemical weapons use without hard evidence presented to the international community will not do — not after the dodgy dossiers fiasco on Iraq in 2003. The U.N. team of chemical weapons inspectors must be given the time to establish: Were chemical weapons used? Which ones, when, by whom and with how many casualties? The team should establish the chain of custody from manufacture and storage to deployment, decision to use, and use. Then will be the time to hold those responsible criminally accountable.

Assad was winning the war against the rebels using brutal scorched earth tactics without chemical weapons. Using them with a U.N. inspection team in the country would be sheer stupidity. The politically savvy response by Assad would have been not just to acquiesce in, but demand immediate inspection by the U.N. team to confirm use and identify the guilty. But then, one of the oldest saws is that rational logic does not govern Middle East events.

Assad demurred for three possible reasons. The regime’s default response to any charge of malfeasance is denial and delay. It may have been afraid that someone lower down the chain of command had used chemical weapons without authorization. Or it was in fact authorized by a senior commander or government minister.

What can the world do in response without further inflaming an extremely volatile region and badly damaging key major power relations? A war-weary public doubts the West has any dog in the fight in the Syrian civil war where a rebel commander filmed himself eating the heart of a government soldier.

The doubts, public skepticism and professional military caution counsel against deploying boots on the ground. Nor is there much appetite for declaring and enforcing no-fly zones or arming the rebels. The favored option seems to be a one-off strike to target planes, helicopters, airfields and other air assets at least risk of allied or civilian casualties. Broader and more sustained military action dramatically increases the military, humanitarian and political costs and risks.

Like friends with benefits, cruise missile strikes might offer instant gratification without lasting commitment. Will air strikes be limited to the retributive and deterrent functions of punishing Assad and preventing a repetition of chemical weapons use? Will the goal be to tip the internal balance against the regime even if this means an al-Qaida affiliated replacement? Or is the goal merely to retrieve U.S. credibility and save U.S. President Barack Obama’s face?

What of the risks, known and unknown, as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld might ask? Which recent Western intervention has left a rosy afterglow instead of death, destruction and broken nations: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya? Is the West determined to prove the veracity of Einstein’s observation that insanity lies in doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result each time?

Obama drew a red line that has been crossed with the use of chemical weapons. That his presidential and U.S. global credibility is on the line is not the world’s problem. Hard as it is for Westerners to swallow, the “international community” has not appointed and will not accept them as the global sheriff.

The ghosts of Iraq in 2003 will continue to haunt and hobble the response to future acts of WMD barbarity. This is also why parliamentary democracies, including Australia, need urgently to modernize their procedures and structures for going to war with full parliamentary debate and sanction instead of by government fiat based on subterfuge, deception and lies.
Still, a global red line too has been crossed. That is the world’s problem. If action is vetoed in the Security Council, the alternative forum for securing international legitimacy is the veto-free General Assembly. A meeting can be called in special emergency session under the decades-old Uniting for Peace Resolution. A solid majority authorizing “all necessary measures” will be proof of the international community’s will.

Absent that, military strikes will be neither lawful nor legitimate, just another instance of vigilante justice by a trigger happy and out of control West.

Syria uses military force, including chemical weapons, inside sovereign borders and we want it held criminally accountable to international standards. The West uses military force across sovereign borders but exempts itself from international accountability.

This equation does not compute anymore. As power shifts to the rest, it is very much in the West’s long-term interests to strengthen respect for the rule of international law and discourage the unilateral use of military force.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.