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Beware the ‘Good’ Intervention

An attack of "dubious legality" doesn't uphold norms--it shreds them.

Nicholas Kristof’s defense of Trump’s attack on the Syrian government contained this frustrating statement:

It’s prudent to be suspicious of military interventions, but imprudent to reject any use of force categorically.

Kristof spends much of his column waving away all of the serious objections to this specific attack. He acknowledges that the attack is probably illegal (it definitely is illegal), but defends it all the same. He doesn’t seem to see the absurdity of his position: he is admitting the illegality of an attack ostensibly carried out to uphold an international norm, but then shrugs and says that the illegality does’t matter anyway. An attack of “dubious legality” doesn’t uphold norms–it shreds them. The core of Kristof’s argument is essentially that breaking international law is fine, so long as it is done for the right reasons. That’s a bad argument, and it is being used to defend a bad decision. Trump didn’t do the right thing here, and the illegality of what he did is at the heart of why it wasn’t right.

Undermining the prohibition on attacking other states is a dangerous thing to do, and it is the weakest states that may suffer the consequences down the road. Every time that the U.S. shows that the rules so-called “rules-based order” don’t apply to our government, it undermines respect for those rules and gives political cover to others that would break them.

P.S. Kristof’s endorsement of the Kosovo war points to another problem with this ends-justify-the-means reasoning when it comes to international law. The 1999 bombing campaign was a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter, but was rationalized as being in a good cause, and now that violation is being cited today as a precedent for another flagrant violation. If this violation isn’t firmly repudiated and challenged, it is just a matter of time before we get another “good” illegal intervention somewhere else.



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