No matter how much one can doubt the strategy or effectiveness of the air strikes against the Islamic State, at least Obama is doing what is morally right: He is protecting civilians from a violent organization. We know that the Islamic State is bad — even the non-interventionist Pope Francis called for the organization to be stopped. Although, according to recent polls, up to 50 percent of Americans support the air strikes, there are more questions to be asked about this interventionist policy. While military intervention is the right thing to do to protect human rights, intervention is still an illegitimate act that violates national sovereignty.
This act of military intervention is undoubtedly illegal. There are three possibilities under which a country can legally commit acts of aggression on another country’s territory. First, the Security Council, the U.N. body that is charged with the maintenance of peace and security, must authorize the intervention. Second, the intervention must constitute self-defense. And third, the country must have requested military assistance in defending itself. The case of the Islamic State meets none of these requirements.
The U.N. Security Council has not authorized the airstrikes. Next, U.S. intelligence agencies are not clear on whether the Islamic State is a direct threat to the United States. It is not an unreasonable case to make, but the legal grounding is shaky to say the least. In a New York Times article, Daniel Benjamin, the former leading anti-terrorism adviser in the State Department, called the public discussion of the Islamic State a “farce” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.” The president admitted in a Sept. 10 speech that intelligence agencies have not detected any specific plans directly targeting the United States. Granted, the videos that the Islamic State published include threats made towards the United States. But if this is the only evidence that the United States is being targeted, intervention cannot possibly be justified under self-defense.
In regard to the third possibility that would legalize intervention: While Iraq has requested help to deal with the Islamic State, which legitimizes Obama’s decision to intervene, Syria has not. It is true that the Islamic State is a large problem on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border — but a border is a border. Iraq has absolutely no right to direct military action within Syria’s borders. One could argue that Assad’s regime is not legitimate, therefore it is permissible to violate Syria’s sovereignty to protect that of Iraq. Assad is neither a benevolent ruler as he was convicted of crimes against humanity and election fraud. Based on these facts, Obama does have a case to bomb the Islamic State without Syria’s permission.
How do we decide who is to intervene? Although there are concerns about the legitimacy of Assad’s regime, the United States is not in a position to unilateraly undermine his regime. Let us not forget — the United States is powerful but still just a country, not an international authority that can determine the legal status of other regimes.
According to U.N. Charter, the United States is currently violating international law: The Security Council has not approved the air strikes, Syria has not asked for help and there is no immediate threat to the United States. It is, however, what seems to be morally right and, at the end of the day, human lives are worth more than upholding the law. The problem is, the airstrikes are not very effective in diminishing the threat. The most they can do is destroy artillery and kill some leading officials, if they are lucky. In fact, the Islamic State troops are advancing to the border of Turkey. While Obama is trying to do what is morally right by violating international law, the end does not justify the means, especially since this strategy is not working.