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Chances are you have heard about the chemical weapons recently used in Syria and the international response – it has been all over every news outlet for weeks. Assuming that the attack was orchestrated by the government, which seems likely, the question is then how does the international community respond?

In the United States, Obama is calling for a targeted military strike. Given  enormous public concern about being brought into another war in the Middle East, the White House has decided to get Congressional authorization for the attack. While his chances look fairly good, the same cannot be said for Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron took the same approach as Obama but received stiff opposition from Parliament. France’s Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault is also trying to convince the National Assembly that military action is necessary. On the other hand, Russia has been critically opposed to a military intervention.

Unfortunately, without United Nations approval a strike against Syria is illegal and, with Russia on the Security Council, approval is unlikely. And that is the most difficult problem with international law: laws can only be useful if they are enforced. Not that every digression should deserve a military response, but let’s face it: Assad was murdering his people well before chemical weapons. Sovereignty is important, but we as a human race should feel some responsibility for these actions? After all, it is our inaction that is allowing these atrocities to continue. And what of the message inaction sends? Obama has mentioned this several time:


It is no surprise that both liberal interventionists and neoconservative realists are advocating American military intervention, even if it is illegal. As President Obama said on Saturday, “If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?”

But this question ignores the obvious: If the United States begins an attack without Security Council authorization, it will flout the most fundamental international rule of all — the prohibition on the use of military force, for anything but self-defense, in the absence of Security Council approval. This rule may be even more important to the world’s security — and America’s — than the ban on the use of chemical weapons. – Washington Post

So what is the point? The point is that there is no stick. No repercussions. No automated international response.  Teddy Roosevelt said it: “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Surely the United States, or even the United Nations, should probably avoid threatening military intervention for every breach of international norms and laws. But for serious offenses – especially those killing hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people – there needs to be a serious course of response taken by the world. Not as political leaders, not as individual countries, not even as votes on the Security Council.

If a government uses chemical weapons against another country’s population it would be war. But use them against its own people – that’s just debate. Seem right to you?

Legality of a Military Response | Obama Seeks Congressional Approval

Britain’s Parliamentary Vote | French Divided