One of the abiding features of international relations is the tension between realism and idealism. The former is often conceived as a constant struggle for power; the latter is animated by the quest for an international environment characterised by equality, the peaceful resolution of conflict, and the supremacy of the rule of law.

The doctrine of state sovereignty and the absence of enforcement in international law produce an international relations environment where the struggle for power often prevails over the collective interests of the community of nations.

Barack Obama, the presidential candidate, inspired people around the world with his promise that as president he will favour diplomacy and negotiations over wars and confrontations; multilateral engagements over unilateral actions. He promised to move international relations from a series of struggles for power to collaboration for peace.

His international law-inspired agenda for peace and development reinforced by his famous slogan: “Yes we can” seduced the community of nations and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize — the first time the prize was awarded not for concrete peace achieved, but for peace in international relations, hoped for, but not yet realised.

Consider the current crisis in Syria and the likely military strikes on the country over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime against the rebels challenging it.

The use of force is illegal in international relations. International law, however, permits the use of force only in two cases: Self-defence, and after authorisation by the United Nations Security Council. Self-defence is an action in response to an attack that is imminent, overwhelming, and leaves no time for reflection. It is beyond argument that the publicly contemplated US attack on Syria does not fall in the category of self-defence.

Syria is not preparing to attack the US and Washington itself is not claiming that its contemplated unilateral attack on Syria is an act of self-defence. The second exception to the rule against the use of force, an authorisation by the UN Security Council, has not materialised. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated that the mission of the UN inspectors in Syria is strictly to determine whether a chemical weapon attack had occurred or not. It is not the mission of the UN inspectors to assign blame.

Given that the British-drafted Security Council resolution authorising the use of force against Syria was rejected by Russia and China, it is unlikely that the UN Security Council will authorise the use of force.

This clearly makes Washington’s contemplated military strikes against Syria an illegal act. Washington itself does not claim that the law is on its side. Instead it invokes a so-called moral argument. This argument is based on two assumptions both of which are questionable: First that the Bashar Al Assad regime has in fact used the illegal weapons against its own people; second that the plaintiff (Washington) comes to the world court of conscience with clean hands.

There is no reason to take the allegations against Al Assad’s regime at face value — with Washington as the only and so far unverifiable source. After all governments are not above what Noam Chomsky called the “engineering of consent”. It was used with deadly efficacy to sell the invasion of Iraq to the American people, with the eager cooperation of the elite media.

It is no surprise to find out, as reported by the public editor of the New York Times, that the American people want to see some distance between their newspapers and their government. “Readers do not want the drumbeat of war,” he wrote, “echoing from their newspaper or its online equivalent.”

As for the moral argument, it is fair to say that Washington does not have a monopoly over moral values in international relations and civic virtues in politics. The list of evidentiary materials is long, but suffice it to mention some that are striking. Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry have expressed outrage at the alleged massive slaughter of civilians by the Syrian regime.

An equally morally outrageous act against innocent civilians occurred when US president Harry Truman decided to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not for the military purpose of bringing Japan to its knees, but for the political purpose of demonstrating to the Russians the power of the new weapon now in American hands.

Or consider the degree of moral obscenity in the reported deaths of a million civilians as a result of the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq. Consider further the answer given by the then secretary of state Madeleine Albright when Leslie Stall of the CBS news show 60 Minutes asked her whether the sanctions were worth the half a million Iraqi children who died as a result: “this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it,” she said.

A few months after taking office Obama went to Cairo, Egypt. He delivered an eloquent speech in which he promised a new era in America’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world. The relationship would be based on mutual respect and cooperation. From the bombing of Libya, to the arming of the rebels in Syria, to the ambivalence about the Egyptian revolutions, Obama has done more to disappoint than to lead and inspire. I wonder what the Nobel Peace Committee is thinking now.


Adel Safty is distinguished visiting professor and special adviser to the rector at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky and published in England by Garnet, 2009.