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Doing Nothing Is a Right, But Is It Right?

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President Obama recently said that in the face of hundreds of Syrian children slaughtered by chemical weapons, he could not accept that the United States might "do nothing." Yet isolationists and internationalists alike are proposing essentially that. Whether as a reaction to genocide (ignoring Rwanda) or terracide (failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol), doing nothing may qualify as an American value. Just ask fictional Seinfeld attorney Jackie Chiles. Protesting his callous clients' arrest for violating a "Good Samaritan" law compelling the rescue of strangers in distress, he tragicomically thundered, "You don't have to help anybody. That's what this country is all about."

As a domestic legal matter, Chiles spoke the truth. In a seminal tort case, a man in Pennsylvania escaped civil liability for watching another drown -- even though the nothing-doer had invited the victim onto his property. But the right to do nothing does not make doing nothing right.

Under an emerging norm of international law, the global community is to intervene if nations fail to protect their own citizens from "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing [or] crimes against humanity." And since the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the use of chemical weapons has been unlawful. Even so, when rogue nations commit heinous crimes, firmly established international law bars other nations from using force against them (except in self-defense) without the approval of the United Nations Security Council. As to Syria, that approval will not be forthcoming anytime soon -- not with Russia and China as permanent council members. Thus, some say, unilateral intervention by the United States would undermine the rule of law, and so we should, militarily, do nothing.

Of course, the international rule of law has not always inspired meticulous compliance in the Oval Office. President George W. Bush once scoffed at a reporter's question on that topic. "International law?" he answered with disdain. "I better call my lawyer. He didn't bring that up to me." (No word as to whether that lawyer was Jackie Chiles.)

Nonetheless, the rule of law is just as crucial to long-term international peace -- which is an American interest -- as it is to domestic stability. Over the centuries, the global community has largely embraced a comprehensive body of legal rules. As the renowned scholar Louis Henkin famously commented, "Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law... almost all of the time."

Be that as it may, the U.N.'s fecklessness in the face of President Bashar al-Assad's barbarity is the latest evidence that the international rule of law runs only so deep. Were it more entrenched, Assad would fear sanctions in the International Criminal Court. And if that didn't give him pause, we could trust that the Security Council would authorize intervention -- or that if it did not, it would have good reason for such forbearance. But given the current inefficacy of international institutions, an appropriate response to lawlessness may be vigilanteism.

Vigilantes generally get a bad name (such as Bernhard Goetz), and rightfully so. Even absent the racial component that often animates American vigilanteism, we tend to disapprove of taking the law into one's own hands. That attitude reflects the luxury of living in a country where, by and large, we can trust the governmental authorities charged with enforcement. When the rule of law wavers, attitudes shift; in the chaos of late-1970s New York City, the Guardian Angels were at first controversial but became a mostly welcome presence.

In a world with a still-nascent legal order, vigilanteism should not be written off with a red line. George Zimmerman had no reason to stalk Trayvon Martin after (not to mention before) calling 911 because the situation was in capable official hands, but when Obama called on the Security Council to address the situation in Syria, the United Nations in effect hung up on him.

In that light, a legitimate question arises about whether the United States should itself ignore international law and punish Syria's violation. To be sure, this country has no duty to police the world (or to rescue foreign drowners), and reasons to favor diplomacy over missiles abound. We may end up killing civilians; an attack may unwittingly accelerate the pace of Assad's abominations; the rebels may perpetrate acts as evil as his. Moreover, in light of the presumable repercussions in Iran of any saber-rattling in the Middle East, one wonders to what extent Obama's true motive for acting as Syrians' guardian is angelic.

Still, despite those weighty reasons for the military to do nothing, we should hesitate to conclude that atrocities perpetrated with weapons banned by international law are none of our business, that we should just avert our arms. The world has long respected the chemical weapons ban. That line, whatever its color, is worth holding. Many have called it arbitrary in that other methods of massacre remain. The availability of myriad murder options, however, is no reason to give up on eradicating a particularly pernicious one, any more than knives make gun control pointless. Allowing the line to blur would seriously harm the international rule of law -- perhaps more so than would a show of un-U.N.-authorized force.

Jackie Chiles was right that you don't have to help anybody. But when you can, often you should. How the United States should respond to Assad is far from clear. If we think a strike would help, though, then we shouldn't let others' reluctance stop us from taking the lead. Maybe what this country is actually all about is doing something.