Obama’s Illegal War Against Syria

Barack Obama wants to fire cruise missiles at Syria. As president of the nation whose military possesses the most lethal firepower of any society in history, he obviously has the ability to start this war — his sixth major front, after Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Pakistan — if he wants to. But does he have the legal right?

The answer is no. Not if the basic architecture of the Constitution, the separation of powers, remains in force. Not if the Founding Fathers’ originalist intent, and their understanding of English at the time, means anything. Not if America’s treaty obligations, which after ratification carry the full force of U.S. law, are more than pieces of paper.

Might makes right; the victor writes history. No doubt, in the perhaps-not-so-distant future, if the United States is formally constituted as an empire, with Syria one of its outlying provinces or a vassal state, no one will care how it went down back in 2013. Until then, however, it matters a lot. Attacking Syria without legal basis would have broad implications, and not just for the Syrians who will lose their lives, limbs and sanity.

Back here in what neofascist politicians and media mouthpieces call the Homeland, we Americans are watching our top officials and boldface notables brush off the basic legal underpinnings of the political culture with impunity.

Obama and his allies’ disdain for the law probably won’t spark much street protest, much less an uprising. (These days, you have to be a white Republican to provoke a demonstration against your wars.) Nevertheless, official lawlessness is corroding the system, hastening the coming rebellion just as surely as rust will eventually cause a bridge to collapse. When those at the top don’t follow their own rules — rules that they wrote, rules from which they benefit the most ­— why should anyone else? “They say I got to respect the system,” the Australian punk band the Saints sang, “but there ain’t no respect in that system for me.”

Obama and the other warmongers are counting on ignorance and confusion to make their case, but the rules of war are clear.

Attacking Syria would be illegal.

Obama and his surrogates keep saying that Obama has the “inherent power” to attack Syria (or any other country) in his role as commander-in-chief. He’s only asking Congress for approval, he says, because he’s a nice guy (and the political cover doesn’t hurt if and when the war turns sour, as they usually do).

In The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton explained the thinking behind the new Constitution to 18th century newspaper readers. The president’s role as “commander-in-chief” was nothing close to the lofty Caesar-like rights Obama claim. So ceremonial as to be virtually insignificant, the commander-in-chief gig barely rated a mention: “While [the powers] of the British kings extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies,” Hamilton explained, “all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the Legislature [Congress].”

In his book War Powers: How The Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution, Peter Irons reminds us that under the U.S. Constitution, the president’s only military role is to repel an invasion — after it has occurred! — pending action by Congress. “The Framers,” writes Irons, “agreed that the president could act without a congressional declaration of war to repel an invasion but that only Congress could authorize the deployment of forces outside the nation’s territory in combat against foreign troops.”

The Founders were split on a number of issues. Slavery, for instance. On separation of powers and making war, they were virtually unanimous. Only a single delegate voted to vest the president with the right to wage war.

Obama has no “inherent right” to attack Syria or any other country.

Under the Constitution, Congress could do it. But the U.S. is also subject to treaty obligations that clearly block it from attacking Syria under present circumstances.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which the U.S. Senate ratified by an 85-1 vote, bans all acts of military aggression. Many of the Nazi leaders executed and imprisoned at Nuremberg were convicted for violating this Pact. It remains in force as international law.

The U.N. Charter mandates that all U.N. member states “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” The Charter does not make exceptions for the three principal arguments Obama makes in favor of attacking Syria: punishment (for using chemical weapons), preemption (it’ll send a message to other possible future chemical weapons users, such as Iran and North Korea) and deterrence (it will deter Assad from attacking Jordan or Israel). To the contrary, the Fourth Geneva Convention outlaws “collective punishment” in which civilians are targeted to suffer for the offenses of their government.

During George W. Bush’s propaganda offensive leading to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush and his allies (many of the same figures pushing to attack Syria) successfully convinced the public to sign off on their “preemptive war.” But neither Iraq then, nor Syria now, comes close to fitting the bill legally.

“There’s a well-accepted definition for preemptive war in international law,” Joseph Cirincione, Director of the Non-Proliferation Project of the Carnegie Endowment, said in late 2002. “Preemptive war is justified by an imminent threat of attack, a clear and present danger that the country in question is about to attack you. In such a case a preemptive attack is recognized as justifiable.”

That’s a very high bar. Even troops massed on your border don’t automatically qualify as an imminent threat under international law. You have to let the enemy hit you first, or have strong reason to believe they’re about to do so.

Now Obama can argue — and others will — that Geneva, Kellogg-Briand, the U.N. Charter, and even the U.S. Constitution are quaint, outdated relics, written by naïve men whose 20th century attempts to outlaw war are irrelevant today. If that’s what they think, then they should convince us to amend or annul them.

As long as these laws remain in force, and as long as Obama and other members of America’s ruling class continue to ignore them, an ugly day of reckoning draws closer.

P.S. to Mr. Obama: Please, Sire, may we miserable subjects of your Benevolent Self kindly see proof that the Syrian government (and not the rebels) carried out that poison gas attack the other day? How about some evidence?


(Ted Rall’s website is Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)


18 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Breaking Bad

  1. We are not a democracy. If we were a democracy, one could not prevent people from voting based on their skin color.

    We are not a republic. If we were a republic, representatives would not be subject to bribery and financial coercion, while generally immune to prosecution due failure to meet their duties to their constituents.

    We are not a capitalist society. If we were a capitalist society, you would have capital.

    We are not a nation of laws.

    We are an ogliarchy. We are ruled by an aristocracy. The aristocracy is not conventionally subject to the rule of law, though it may apply in occasional cases — especially when its application would not harm the aristocracy in general.

    A victim of the Iraq War is suing the U.S. for the invasion; Holder has already invoked a law that makes the present and past administrations immune to liability under a legal doctrine expressible as “just because.”

    Rall has pointed out that we are in interregnum since Bush’s ascencion was illegal. (And, I would note that both elections included fraud that enabled Bush’s illegal win.)

    The law, as an entity, is dead letter. No one is minding the store; there are no cops on the beat. This is a consequence of centuries of imperialism: having indulged in criminality for so long, our government now is offended by noncriminal notions. Those quaint, radical critics who held that the law was no sacred trust or mystical all-permeating entity, but the active, physical acts done by the powerful have been proven to be grim realists. As Chesterton told us: “The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

  2. “How bout some evidence?”

    The evidence states that the rebel-rats kidnapped women and children from the Syrian province of Latakia, gassed them to death, and blamed Assad just in time for the UN inspectors to check into their hotels in Damascus.

    But who cares about “facts” anymore. They’re just an inconvenience, right?

  3. Ted, what do you think? That the MOTU sit around talking about the Constitution? Debating Jefferson and Madison? Discuss the meaning of “commander in chief”? No. They don’t. The United States is a business and Obama is the current CEO. He interfaces with the unelectable elite that run the foreign policy community. They are the ones who decide when we go to war, not some yellowing founding documents.

    No wonder why this country’s leaders are able to act with impunity. They constantly engage in abuses of power while the intellectuals debate what the Founding Fathers meant. They play chess while everyone else sticks a bunch of checkers up their own asses. Hopeless.

  4. Sigh, more nonsense about a revolution that won’t happen (or at least not until long after anyone who reads this will be dead), and would not have the beneficial effects you believe it will, even if it did.

    “As long as these laws remain in force, and as long as Obama and other members of America’s ruling class continue to ignore them, an ugly day of reckoning draws closer.”

    As long as people play directly into the right-wings hands by listening to drivel about revolution instead of buckling down and doing the work necessary to change things, things will continue to get worse. And the glorious day when things begin to get better recedes ever further into the distance.

  5. And this is the part where Whimsical points out exactly one, even one, just fucking one example in the entirety of human history where a rightwing establishment that controls every major aspect of government is enabled, due to the existence of a revolutionary liberal movement, manages to gain additional control of the government in complete defiance of both common sense and basic goddamn grammar.

    Or just concedes that he’s full of shit.

  6. Whimsical,

    I still think it’s long odds on a revolution in the next few years, but I don’t think it’s quite as unlikely as you’re saying.

    Basically, revolution only comes when the people can rally the sheeple to overthrow the government. The 1%’s greatest success is the controlled demolition of the 99%. The screwing over took 30 years. Talk to a labor expert. The national strikes should have happened as soon as wages started to stagnate. Now, 20-odd years after people started noticing that they were working harder than before but getting less-further ahead (or even falling behind), it’s too late.

    But the 1% started small. Outsource a few jobs here and there. When everyone was used to outsourcing, it ramped up. The “at-will” contract showed up. That helped break the herd. And let’s not forget all the “indoor voice” training that we’ve all been programmed with. We are all, pretty much, obedient and tolerant of our mistreatment. When a co-worker gets let go because, well, they were six months from a pension after 19 years of work? Do we all get up and walk out? Of course not. We say a couple of meaningless things, “Sorry. We’ll keep in touch. You’ll find another job, maybe even a better one than this!” and then work a little faster, to make sure we don’t get fired too.

    I think that in another 20 years, the 1% will be hunting us for sport, and we’ll all be bobbing and weaving to get to work (those of us with jobs). And when one of us staggers in with a shoulder wound, the rest of us will tell him, “Shit, you should have paid attention to what you were doing. You’ve got no one to blame for getting shot but yourself. Now get to work.”

  7. After Germany killed 11 million in Concentration Camps, the world swore, ‘Never again.’

    Hence, if al-Assad killed 100,000 Syrians, 1,429 by universally banned poison gas, he should be stopped. And the US is the country with the greatest military resources, and hence inherits the responsibility for ending al-Assad’s slaughter of the innocent.

    Such is the administration’s plea. Which has a few, minor problems. (Were the administration’s scenario accurate, which it isn’t, I’d agree with the administration that the US should go in and stop al-Assad.)

    For starters, Saturday’s New York Times has an article saying ‘trust but verify,’ which says the administration has provided no proof that al-Assad is the one slaughtering the innocent. The article links to another article (accurate, but mostly dismissed) that the massive chemical weapon attack of 21 August was perpetrated by the anti-Syrian mercenaries as a ‘false flag’. The linked article says the administration is lying through its teeth. And, of course, anyone who knows rhetoric knows that: the administration IS lying through its teeth.

    Kerry uses the faux precision of ‘1,429 killed’ in the 21 August chemical attack. Faux precision makes the naïve listener think the speaker has extremely detailed, and therefore accurate information. But, to the informed listener, it’s just a rhetorical trick that indicates that the speaker is lying.

    Kerry is just doing as he’s been told. But why is Obama doing this? (Saudi baksheesh would be my guess.)

  8. Although I did not notice the “false precision” (and shame on me for missing what is, once pointed out, an obvious flag), I do notice that no one seems interested in pointing out “chemical weapons? Okay. WHERE did they come from? From WHOM? Are those companies trading with the U.S.? Do they have offices and officials in this country who could be arrested? etc.

    There is so much about this sudden urgency to “deal with” Syria that I’m suspicious. I begin to wonder if the big secret is that if the military runs out of wars, all the Nintendo murderers will have to go home. And if they go home, they might start talking about everything. It’s one thing when a crossdressing faggot does it, but when JoeBob McNugget starts having nightmares about everything he did? Oh, my, that’ll be serious.

  9. Of course, as I am a student of Machiavelli, I don’t believe “international law” exists. For it to be enforceable, nation-states would have to give up sovereignty, so there is no law higher than the nation-state. Regardless, we have to look at the Syrian issue through the goggles the world uses and the Obama administration is pretending to use; if Obama is basing his case on international norms and laws then we must consider them in their entirety. And we have to consider ulterior motives as well as our leaders’ hypocrisies…anyone who knows anything knows this isn’t about ‘human dignity’ or justice or saving lives or whatever other noble cause.


    Thanks for saying exactly what needs to be said of Whimsical and nothing more.


    Yes! Of what little I have watched of Kerry, that exact number stuck out at me. We so rarely know any death toll with such precision even YEARS later! I knew this was said to impress the ignorant. It reminds me of internet scams that claim you can make $729/day or the like, a random number from their asses. It be much more believable to me if they said $300 or more or at least 1400 people were killed, but it still isn’t any strong point let alone evidence.


    Yes, the urgency is surprising and very alarming. The time to act (if there was one) was BEFORE they all started butchering each other. Not only is there no evidence we are in the right here in any way, there’s no evidence shooting some missiles will help anything! The whole line of argument is a flimsy joke! I really wish I knew EXACTLY why they want to intervene so badly. We can make generalized reasonable educated guesses all day. I do think it goes back to Ted’s point that Obama, as have other presidents, is trying to expand the imperial presidency while appearing legitimate and measured.

  10. Alex-

    I’m near 50. No one in my family has made it to their 90th birthday. The chances of there being a revolution before I kick the bucket are so close to zero as to be statistically insignificant.

    And I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s the best I can hope for. The left will not get a clue anytime soon and start using the system properly to push the Democratic party back to the left. So you, and Ted, and all those right wingers with which you agree will get your wish- you’ll get your revolution.

    And you will lose. And your loss will give the right wingers the perfect excuse to move to their endgame- the transformation of the United States into a fascist theocracy. This has been their goal for more than 40 years. Its a win-win for them: they either create the conditions for a revolution, which they know they can crush or they dupe people to spread right wing crap instead of fighting back- which gives them even more political power to make things worse. And every time you spout nonsense about how the system needs to be overthrown, or how both parties are the same, or how you shouldn’t vote- your are aiding them in achieving their goal and giving them the political power to continue to make things worse.

    Its a constant tug of war between those of us who get what an utterly losing proposition a revolution would be, and those who have brought into the right wing mindset instead of realizing they can fight back- and you and Ted, and the right wingers you’re aligned with are winning.

    So, Congratulations; you’ll get your unnecessary, uncalled for, dangerous and detrimental revolution. And after I’m gone and you’ve lost, and the consequences of your loss are 1000X worse than even I imagined, I want you to remember me.

    When you’re drowning in a sea of right wing nonsense, and longing for the days when Obama was in charge; when the right wingers (with your help) have crushed every freedom and person you hold dear, when they send your loved ones away for thoughtcrime, or sell them into slavery for being in debt, I want you to cast your eyes skyward and shout “Save us.”

    If only so I can look down at the mess you helped create and whisper sadly, “I tried”.


    Yo want to run that by me again in a language other than pseudo-intellectual whiny bullshit?

  11. Oh, did Whimsy suddenly get stupid? How tremendously convenient.

    Jack, and I’m sure others, understood completely. You have no evidence to support anything you’re saying. You’re a worthless liar. Literally — that’s not a mere pejorative. You contribute nothing to discussion. Worse, anyone with a fifth-grade education can note that your lies are in direct contradiction to history. The Enlightenment itself spurred a series of left-wing rebellions. If any attempt at revolution ever led to a right-wing resurgence we’d know about it. We are literally living proof of of the contrary.

    And — not to put too fine a point on it — I’m pretty sure everyone here agrees that “whining” is pretty much your province. After all, isn’t your main goal here to cry like a little girl whenever someone notes that Obama broke the law or hurt an innocent person?

    So what do you bring to the table but your own, pathetic right-wing projections and deliberate ignorance of history? Nothing. Not even clever prose.

    You’re a rightwing liar with nothing — not a single fact — to show for your position. You are worthless.

  12. Ah Sek- ad hominems, the last resort of those who know they’ve lost. In your case, not merely lost, but been argued circles around. This is the last time I’ll respond to your pseudo intellectual whiny bullshit- the laughable fact that you claim I’m arguing for a right-wing resurgence shows that you lack the intellectual capacity to understand my position, let alone refute it.

    If and when you actually say something worthwhile , I might respond. I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to actually say something of substance, though.

  13. “Ah Sek- ad hominems [sic], the last resort of those who know they’ve lost.”

    Um, you just one post ago:

    “pseudo-intellectual whiny bullshit”

    You couldn’t respond to the substance of my post, so you resorted to argumentum ad hominem. I concluded that you were a rightwing liar because you a) lied, and lie here repeatedly, and b) support rightwing politicians and policies. The earlier post I made describes your most recent lies.

    Care to back up anything you say with evidence? Clearly not:

    “you claim I’m arguing for a right-wing resurgence”

    Bullshit. I never said anything about a “resurgence.” Another lie, within the same thread, even.

    You get butthurt because you don’t like your ridiculously insulting positions being called out. Worse, you resort to fallacies instead of defending the semi-coherent garbage you present. To wit: as you actually are a rightwing liar, and your lies add nothing to the discussion, you are worthless. That is not argumentum ad hominem because it is both factual and relevant to the issue at hand: that is, you distracting from the topic at hand.

    But wait, since argumentum ad hominem is basically a fallacy of relevance and you present irrelevant points and respond with unsubstantiated insults (your insult, quoted above, has no basis in fact), you are accusing another of your own behavior. (Projection, a typical rightwing trait.) Indeed, now you’ve added ad hominem tu quoque to the mix.

    So, all latin aside: you spew bullshit. You make shit up. You lie. You insult people when caught lying. You add nothing to the discussion.

    If you had any dignity, any worth, you could back your original post up with facts. You can’t. Hence: worthless.

    And by the way, folks: in case you were wondering about the chances that we could bring Congress or the President around by conventional voting (e.g., no term limits, campaign finance reform, revolt, or anything else — just same old, same old), the responsiveness of Senate to poor constituents is zero.

    As in never.

    As in fuck you, forever and ever.

    At no point does the Senate, no matter which party is in charge, in any party mixes or ratios, produce legislation with poor constituents in mind.

    I don’t need to point out how this contradicts anything whim or any other rightwinger says — in the former case the entire Enlightenment does that. I just wanted that out there for everyone in the case of future trolls. And in the case of the Syrian War, well, given this fact, we can only hope that Jordan et. al. keeps taking in those refugees. Things are about to get worse.

  14. I wish you trolls would spend as much time writing your representatives and people who might be able to do something a bit more responsible than spitting vitriol and insults at each other. This is supposed to be a blog or forum where people should be able to express their opinions about issues that Ted highlights.

  15. Whimsical,

    I’ve noticed lately that I’m having a very similar reaction to Obama as the one I had to Dubya, and before him, Clinton and Reagan. If I had to put it in a couple of sentences, it would go something like: “Goddammit, wipe that smirk off your face. People are suffering because of your behavior, and you stand there and play golf while you joke with asshats who call themselves reporters?”

    All these guys (with the exception of Reagan, who sure as hell knew how to keep the mask in place until the director said ‘Cut!’) look like they’re about to double over laughing. I honestly wonder if one of the desk drawers in the Oval Office has a jumbo-size bottle of K-Y and a box of Kleenex with the presidential seal, because no one does these sorts of things unless it really gets them going.

    I wonder what the ceiling over the presidential desk must look like after 30-odd years of climaxes fueled by human suffering.

    Obama hasn’t been forced into his decisions. He’s doing these things reluctantly. It’s like he’s ripping the paper off a birthday present. The best I can come up with is that he needs everyone’s attention turned away from the economy. So Syria delenda est.

    I cannot imagine that I would ever be at a state where I would long for more of Obama’s brand of governance. I don’t long for the good old days of Reagan, either. Or the wonderful era when polio killed people.

    God. Imagine the next election. Joe Biden? Farce is one thing, but come on. Let’s not go nuts here. It ought to be quite a show. Like watching a bad liar try to explain how that peanut butter jar got in there.

  16. Whoops. Left out a “not.” Obama’s NOT doing these things reluctantly.

    Sorry about that, chief.

    • By way of information, it is possible for anyone who is an authorized and registered poster here to edit their posts. If you have any trouble doing so, please get in touch with me directly.

  17. Sekhmet’s no troll, rikster…and you should know better than to think Congress is responsive to the People…Obama’s determined to do whatever he wants regardless.