It was in Shakepeare’s Henry IV where Lord Hotspur declared, “Now, for our consciences, the arms are fair,/ When the intent of bearing them is just.”
Such timeless words capture the question of today: What is just for Syria? Should America respect Syria’s national sovereignty or seek to intervene through the United Nations — or should it take unilateral action in the interest of human rights? There are many arguments on every side, and surely they cannot all be addressed here.
One facet will be addressed however, as Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has written on this topic. He has boldly asserted that America is the only nation capable of being the “World’s Policeman,” because America is in fact “the world’s best policeman.” Casting those who may disagree into the Dark Ages, he invokes the restrained foreign policy views in the post-colonial world of President John Adams, who uttered that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Today, things are different, he argues, lauding America as “the mightiest, wealthiest, and most influential nation on the face of the earth.” Because of this stated fact, Jacoby proclaims that America has an inherent duty to police the entire world. He recalls the rise of Nazi Germany, the defense of Kuwait during the Persian Golf Conflict in 1990, military assistance in Kosovo, and how America “faced down the Soviet Union.”
As we have seen before, he omits critical facts which would be characteristic of a balanced perspective. Jacoby fails to mention Vietnam, Haiti, or Nicaragua as unsuccessful intervention efforts, nor does he note that America has already committed to arming rebel forces, as we did during the Cold War.
He dismisses the United Nations by casually stating that the UN, brainchild of President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, is pointless. Jacoby notes that policing the world “is clearly something the United Nations cannot do” and refers to its “bloody trail of failure.” What about the 2005 RAND Corporation report, which compared “nation-building” activities of the UN to those of the USA, and concluded that UN efforts actually had a higher frequency of long term success?
Jacoby’s most fatal mistake comes when he compares America to NYPD officers walking their beat to “suppress crime and reduce fear.” He argues that America’s police role must be in the interest of “deterring aggression, maintaining the flow of commerce, and upholding human rights.”
What is so flawed here is a concept apparently far beyond Jacoby’s grasp: jurisdiction. The NYPD has jurisdiction over New York City. The NYPD cannot go into New Jersey to enforce New Jersey laws or even New York laws. The NYPD cannot go into Connecticut to enforce laws, nor can the NYPD make arrests outside of New York City. That would be beyond its jurisdiction and exceed the scope of its authority.
To enforce laws in other states and jurisdictions, the NYPD must partner with other federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. To apprehend individuals wanted in other jurisdictions, there is an established process known as extradition.
Even though it is the largest police force in the United States, the NYPD cannot anoint itself to be “America’s Policeman.” Other jurisdictions already have law enforcement apparati in place; surely they may not have as many human and technological resources as the NYPD, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if it could even be said that New York City is the “mightiest, wealthiest, and most influential” city in America.
There’s something about the “rule of law” which means if you lack the authority to do something, then you can’t do it. You can’t break the law to enforce the law; that is inherently antithetical and compromises the very principles which anyone — or any “policeman” — seeks to defend.
The same debate occurs today with the question of whether the NSA exceeded its surveillance authority: the defense is that it keeps us safe, but does the invasion of privacy in fact threaten us even more? How can we, as a nation, defend the rule of law and then seek to act outside of it?
As one pair of Yale Law School professors recently pointed out, “In the absence of Security Council authorization, international law prohibits the use of military force to enforce international law.”
While others believe that United Nations chemical weapons inspectors should be permitted to complete their evaluation, Jeff Jacoby believes that America should break the law to enforce the law. In another article entitled “Yesterday’s Atrocities Are Happening Again,” Jacoby compares North Korea, Egypt, and Syria to Nazi Germany.
Like a singing bard, he sadly laments: “The burning of houses of worship didn’t end with Kristallnacht, nor the gassing of civilians with Halabja, nor concentration-camp butchery with Dachau…” While the events in Nazi Germany were one of the darkest moments in modern world history, Jacoby’s vigilant warning is that the world cannot stand idly by while injustice spreads.
Yet the method he asserts — for America to invade Syria, North Korea, and presumably, Egypt — is inherently wrong. While Syria has not signed the UN Chemical Weapons Convention, Syria has signed the 1925 Geneva Protocol, which bans the use of chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are the “red line” drawn by President Obama determining whether direct American involvement may be warranted.
The core issue is not whether chemical weapons were used — it is instead, “who used them?” Was it the government of President Assad or was it rebels, as the Syrian government officially claims? That comes down to a question of evidence, and that process is ongoing at this very moment, although it is admittedly “no slam dunk.”
Now there are fears that more chemical attacks are on the horizon, and time is of the essence. Jeff Jacoby argues that a failure to act will lead to widespread conflict, while others believe that taking action may lead to a World War III. To act, or not to act: that is the question.
While there can be no answer to that here, what should be clear is that America should not police the world any more than the NYPD should police Detroit, MI, Oakland, CA, St. Louis, MO, or any other jurisdiction with a high rate of crime which would benefit from such intervention.
Jacoby should understand this already, as it was he who recently criticized President Obama’s administration for “federal overreach” and abusing its authority on the domestic front. Yet he aggressively pushes for apparent military intervention abroad in Syria, Egypt, and North Korea.
Instead of exceeding its military authority, America must work together with its political partners, under the rule of law. We must lead by example. If there is a legal justification for taking action in Syria or anywhere else, then it must be defensible. To enforce the law, a police officer must have legal authority while also having legitimacy from the community.
Jeff Jacoby’s noteworthy pride in America is misplaced, because even being the “best policeman” still does not bestow an inherent power to police.