Kori Schake tackles a strawman in the Syria debate:
By valuing a United Nations mandate more than we value the lives of Syrians, we have given authoritarian governments a veto on our ethical responsibilities — multilateralism trumps morals. It is discouraging that our government champions this concession as though it were a virtue.
One could just as easily turn this around on the “arm the rebels” interventionists by saying that they value curtailing Iranian influence in the Near East more than they value Syrian lives. It wouldn’t be entirely fair, but it would probably be more accurate than what Schake has written here. Every interventionist option proposed to date would have the effect of intensifying the conflict and would result in more Syrian deaths. Schake doesn’t spell out what “sharply and immediately penalize the Assad regime for using military force against its citizens” means, but presumably this involves some form of punitive military action. It’s not at all obvious that this is what “our values call for.” Do “our values” call for making a bad situation worse?
Where Schake goes wrong here is in assuming that respecting international law and international institutions is at odds with doing what is best to limit and end the violence in Syria. If international law is an obstacle to Western military action in Syria, for example, that doesn’t mean that opponents of an illegal war waged without authorization value international law more than civilian lives. While respect for international law is important in itself, it can also be a barrier to the use of force against other states, which helps to protect the lives of the population that would be caught in the escalating fighting. Many interventionists want to escalate the conflict by backing the losing side in a civil war in one way or another, and their goal is to overthrow the current regime. The civilian population of Syria would suffer even more death and displacement if these recommendations were followed. It is not only prudent for the U.S. to support efforts to secure and build on a cease-fire, but it is also the morally responsible thing to do for the entire population of Syria.