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The Wrong Way to Be Right

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
September 11, 2013
Foreign Policy

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Over the past two years, many thoughtful pieces have advocated for U.S. military intervention in Syria's civil war. A review of such pieces reveals three core justifications: protecting civilians; altering the battlefield to help topple Assad or facilitate a diplomatic solution; and countering Iranian influence in the region. Very few have emphasized the need for the U.S. military to uphold international norms.

However, since the White House recently made norm-enforcement the primary, professed basis for attacking Syria, intervention advocates have adopted this reasoning. Indicative of this shift, in the 24 months preceding Secretary of State John Kerry's August 26 speech, the words "international norm" and "Syria" appeared together 263 times in the 6,075 English-language news publications surveyed by the search engine Lexis Nexis, and 792 times in the 13 days after. Naturally, the normative argument has also become fodder for those opposing intervention, with Sen. Ted Cruz proclaiming on Sunday, "I don't think that's the job of our military, to be defending amorphous international norms."

There are two fundamental questions at the heart of this debate that are worth discussing: what, exactly, norms are and how a state can and should go about enforcing them. The answers to these questions, taken together with recent, contradictory statements by the administration about its aims, reveal that, when it comes to international normative arguments, the U.S. is on shaky ground with its quest to strike Syria.

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