Why Kerry’s Speech Doesn’t Necessarily Mean We’re Going To War In Syria

CREDIT: Bassam Khabieh / Reuters

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The near-universal reaction to Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech on Syrian chemical slaughter of civilians is that he was clearly laying the groundwork for some kind of military assault against the Assad regime. The Washington Post reported this takeaway as if it were straight news: “Kerry left little doubt,” the Post wrote, “that the decision for the United States is not whether to take military action, but when.”

Not so fast. It’s true that Kerry’s speech marked the harshest American condemnation of the slaughter in Syria to date, but rhetorical escalations don’t mean military ones. In both international law and morality, moral judgments of atrocities are distinct from moral justifications for military responses to them. There’s a strong chance we’ll take military action in Syria, but this speech by no means guarantees it.

To start with, go read Kerry’s speech. Here’s the full text. Notice that neither the word “military” nor the word “intervention” appear in the speech. Though long on condemnation (“moral obscenity”), Kerry’s address only demanded “accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again.”

It is simply not the case that accountability means military strikes. It could, for instance, mean indicting Bashar al-Assad in the International Criminal Court (ICC). It could mean economic sanctions. There’s actually a wide spectrum of non-military strategies for mass atrocity prevention and accountability that could be used if, as Kerry said, President Obama wants some kind of “accountability” for the attack on Ghouta.

Would these options result in Bashar al-Assad being overthrown? Probably not, but military action isn’t a guarantee either. Of the two options most seriously under public consideration, limited punitive airstrikes and a Kosovo-style campaign, the former almost certainly wouldn’t topple Assad, and the regime change implications of the latter would depend on the amount of resources we’re willing to invest in it. Either or both might be good ideas, but it’s not immediately obvious that they’re better forms of “accountability” simply by virtue of involving military force.

Moreover, the Obama Administration might not think that such military actions are worth the costs. I don’t mean costs to the United States only; I mean the political and humanitarian consequences. It’s a widely accepted principle in the ethics of war that any decision to go to war must have “reasonable prospects for success.” In a humanitarian intervention, that means a judgment by American leaders that the use of force will actually save civilian lives. In an intervention to reinforce the taboo on chemical weapons use, that means a judgment that the particular strikes in question would actually deter the use of chemical weapons by Assad and others like him in the future without unacceptable costs.

Kerry, President Obama, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and the Joint Chiefs might well decide that, despite the moral horror of the chemical attack on Ghouta, no plausible military option could actually accomplish the twin objectives of saving civilians and deterring chemical weapons use. Indeed, Obama himself told The New Republic in January that two of the most important questions in weighing a Syria intervention were “can we make a difference in that situation?” and “What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground?” The answers to these questions are independent of the harshness of Kerry’s condemnation of the Syrian atrocities; it is not clear how the terribleness of Syrian atrocities changes the effectiveness of the military options available to the United States for preventing them.

There’s also the international legal landscape. Just war theory requires “right authority” for any military intervention; in legal terms, that usually ends up meaning that war without UN Security Council authorization is unlawful. Given Russia’s USNC veto and tight relationship with Damascus, that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Now, it’s possible that there’s another legal justification the Obama Administration might have developed for a Syria intervention, but it’s equally possible there’s not. The question also isn’t likely to be settled by the stridency of American moral rhetoric or, sadly, the scale of horror in Syria.