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US Diplomacy and National Security

The Return of the Neocons (and their Scorn for International Law): A Sword without a Strategy

by Robert Howse

[Rob Howse is the Lloyd C. Nelson Professor of International Law at NYU and is guest blogging this week here at Opinio Juris.]

According to Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of The National Interest, the neocons are about to make a spectacular comeback in American foreign policy.  Writing about the midterm elections in the Financial Times last Friday, Heilbrunn observed: “the Republican party is resurrecting the unilateral foreign policy doctrines that first took hold under President George W Bush and his vice-president Dick Cheney.” So let’s take a hard look at the weapons the neocons have in their arsenal these days.

The first, as Heilbrunn notes, is Barack Obama, or more precisely discontent with his apparently reactive and hesitating approach to foreign and security policy, exemplified by situations such as Ukraine, Syria and the rise of ISIS.  If you read the fine print, to the extent there is any, the neocons like Cheney and Bill Kristol don’t have any master plan or worked out strategy of their own for dealing with these problems.  They appeal to the heartwarming (for some Americans) fantasy that, if the United States simply drops enough bombs and puts enough boots on the ground, victory over the forces of evil will prevail.  In this fantasy world, every apparent failure of intervention–Afghanistan, Iraq–can be explained by not enough American force being applied.  Consider Bill Kristol’s approach to ISIS: “What’s the harm in bombing them at least for a few weeks and seeing what happens?” This is the key logic:force has got to be better than no force, a sort of dogmatic inversion of pacifism. Of course, Kristol’s remark also speaks volumes to the neocons’ stance toward international law.

Then there is Senator-elect Tom Cotton.  As Heilbrunn notes,”Perhaps no one has been more impassioned in their support of the foreign policy of George W Bush than Tom Cotton.” Cotton, 37 years old, is the neocon wet dream.  After Harvard College (where he wrote for the Crimson, citing intellectual idols Allan Bloom and Leo Strauss) and Harvard Law School, Cotton signed up for the military insisting that he be sent into combat in Iraq.  While, as the legend goes, the army urged him toward a JAG-type position, Cotton would have none of it:  he had little interest in the laws of war, he wanted to fight one.  Cotton is perhaps the most credible of any of the neocons–he, at least, chose to risk his life in the war that he praised as “just and noble”.  He has also (at least somewhat) distanced himself from the main neocon strategy of withering attacks on Barack Obama, calling on Republicans to support the President’s plan for use of force in Syria and rather nobly lecturing partisan Republican conservatives: “we have one commander in chief at a time, and the United States is weakened if our presidency is weakened. No matter the president’s party or his past failures, all Americans should want, and help, him to succeed when it comes to our national security.”   While he shares the outlook of the ideological and partisan neocons, offering his conviction that America can and should seek “victory” in Afghanistan and Iraq, my hunch is that, given that he has had the responsibility as a soldier for the lives of men and women in combat, Cotton may actually prove a constructive and moderating force behind the scenes, if he does not consume too much energy in battles with the isolationist Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party.

(more…)

Thoughts on the Baffling Comoros Declination

by Kevin Jon Heller

As I read – and re-read – the OTP’s decision regarding the attack on the Mavi Marmara, one thought kept going through my mind: what was the OTP thinking? Why would it produce a 61-page document explaining why, despite finding reason to believe the IDF had committed war crimes during the attack, it was not going to open an investigation? After all, the OTP took barely 10 pages to explain why it was not going to open an investigation into British war crimes in Iraq. And it routinely refuses to open investigations with no explanation at all.

There are, I think, two possible explanations for the length of the decision. The first is that the OTP learned its lesson with its 2006 Iraq decision, which no one found convincing and was widely interpreted as Luis Moreno-Ocampo succumbing to Western pressure. This time, the OTP was going to do better, providing a much more detailed discussion of its decision not to investigate.

The second possible explanation is that the OTP felt the need to say more than usual because this was the first time a state had referred crimes committed by another state to the OTP. Nothing in the Rome Statute requires the OTP to treat state referrals differently than “referrals” by individuals or organisations (the scare quotes are necessary because individuals and organisations don’t refer situations; they ask the OTP to use its proprio motu power to open an investigation into a situation), but the OTP is, of course, ultimately dependent upon states to cooperate with it. Hence greater solicitude toward state referrals is warranted.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I imagine both are at least partially correct. But I still can’t help but think that the OTP made a serious mistake, one that will come back to haunt it in the future, should it ever need to formally address the Israel/Palestine conflict again — which seems likely.

To be clear, I don’t think refusing to investigate the attack on the Mavi Marmara was a mistake. I agree with the OTP that the potential crimes committed during the attack, however troubling, are not grave enough to warrant a formal investigation. My problem is with the OTP’s explanation of why those crimes are not adequately grave – that attacks on peacekeepers (in Darfur) are more serious than an attack on civilians engaged trying to break a blockade that has been widely condemned as illegal because of its devastating consequences for the inhabitants of Gaza. I fully agree with Michael Kearney’s recent guest-post on the Comoros decision, in which he questions the OTP’s characterisation of the flotilla as not really being humanitarian. I’d simply add that I find problematic its insistence that a genuinely humanitarian mission would have worked with Israel to distribute goods in Gaza instead of trying to break the blockade. Doing so would have meant, of course, giving final say over the goods to a state whose officials have admitted they want to keep Palestinians at near-subsistence levels. Complying with the blockade would simply have made the flotilla complicit in Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of Gaza’s civilian population.

The OTP’s gravity analysis is also analytically confused…

This War of Mine — A New (and Better) Type of Videogame

by Kevin Jon Heller

Nearly nine years ago, I blogged about the ICRC’s efforts to prevent the use — or, more accurately, the misuse — of the Red Cross symbol in videogames. I imagine it will have less of a problem with the new game This War of Mine, which challenges the player to survive as long as possible as a civilian in a war-torn fictional city. Here is the powerful trailer for the game, which mixes survivor testimony with haunting in-game graphics:

And here is a snippet of a glowing (if that’s the right adjective) review of the game by Matt Peckham in Wired:

I’ve seen some refer to This War of Mine as an antiwar video game. That’s too reductive—like calling pictures of civilian casualties in conflict zones “pacifist propaganda.”

The scenarios This War of Mine engages are less antiwar than they are actual war stories, and that, I think, is the point: This is what unflinching war looks like from the standpoint of those powerless to stop it, the ones caught in the teeth of the machine without catchy operational monikers to rally behind or celebrated by politicians to usher them home as heroes. The ones whose war this isn’t.

It’s what Cormac McCarthy was getting at in The Road: We’re a faint signal cutting through the static of existence, and war, with its reduction of civilian lives to collateral damage, scrambles even that.

The version of war we’re often sold involves abstract military numbers, splashy interactive news maps and easy slogans on bumper stickers. In real war, whatever the reasons and however noble the rhetoric, it comes down to individuals like the ones in This War of Mine: People like you or me trapped in appalling scenarios, their social constructs crumbling, needing basic shelter, food, a bed to sleep in, pills or antibiotics, and perhaps most of all, a reason in all the madness not to check out for good.

Videogames are now a $15 billion industry. Here’s hoping at least some of that money goes to the innovative developers of This War of Mine for showing us the educative and transformative potential that well-designed videogames possess.

Guest Post: Gabor Rona on the AUMF Discussion

by Gabor Rona

[Gabor Rona is a Visiting Professor of Law and Director, Law and Armed Conflict Project at Cardozo Law School.]

Just Security and Lawfare have published dueling AUMF reform proposals, here and here. (The proposals are not those of Just Security or Lawfare, but rather, those of the individual authors. For ease of reference, I’m calling them Just Security and Lawfare.) At the moment, there are also dueling posts on the two websites about the meaning of the Just Security proposal’s sunset provision. In fact, there are bigger fish to fry.

There’s quite a bit of agreement in the two proposals, as Ben notes in his responsive post at Lawfare, but he takes issue with the Just Security proposal’s principle #1: that a new AUMF should be “ISIL-specific and mission-specific.” Ben wants to include Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but the fact is that while the Just Security proposal is limited to ISIL, it does nothing that would conflict with executive powers to use force elsewhere. Both proposals contemplate force against ISIL and “associated forces,” but the Lawfare proposal explicitly adds Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. This addition appears to be a critical distinction between the two proposals, since they both also envision repeal of the 2001 AUMF against those responsible for 9/11 and those who harbor them (Al Qaeda and the Taliban) and of the 2002 AUMF against Saddam’s Iraq. Ben fears, mistakenly, that the Just Security proposal would leave our residual forces in Afghanistan legally naked. Here’s why he’s wrong.

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan hasn’t ended, but it has changed. The two international legal elements for armed conflict no longer exist. The first element is frequent and/or severe attacks. Fact is, it’s been quite a while since there have been either frequent or severe hostilities between the US and Al Qaeda/Taliban, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere on the planet. The drawdown of coalition troops and the limits imposed on those that remain make it difficult, if not impossible, for frequent or sever hostilities to persist. The second element for armed conflict is that the attacks be conducted by organized entities with a command structure, such that they are capable of being considered “a party” to armed conflict and subject to the laws of war. Whether you prefer to think of Al Qaeda as having “metastasized” or “dissipated,” there’s plenty of reason to doubt that “it” is no longer an “it” with the requisite command structure.

Another way to view the situation is that we’ve gone from war in Afghanistan, where force may be employed offensively, to non-war, where force may be employed defensively. The point for AUMF purposes is this: while US troops may need congressional authorization to prosecute a war, they do not need congressional authorization to defend themselves. That’s because the executive has inherent authority to order, or permit, our forces to defend themselves in the event of attack or imminent threat.

Bottom line # 1: while the Lawfare proposal is more emphatic about repeal of the two AUMFs than is the Just Security proposal, it is the Just Security proposal’s limitation to ISIL that more genuinely melds facts on the ground with applicable law, while doing nothing to compromise the executive’s constitutional powers to use force in self-defense.

Ben’s concerns aside, both proposals fail to deal effectively with the flawed notion of “associated forces.” Section 2b of the Lawfare proposal says that the “authorization of force (against Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Afghan Taliban) extends to associated forces of (those) entities . . . insofar as such forces are engaged in hostilities against the United States.” There are two things wrong here.

First, the very notion of “associated forces” as a construct to widen the net of war is wrong. There is no such notion in international law, and for good reason. There is a notion of “co-belligerency” applicable to wars between states. This notion exists to remove the protections of the law of neutrality when State C interferes in a war between States A and B. But there is no neutrality principle applicable to non-State armed groups, so the US’s doctrine asserting the right to engage against “associated forces” by analogy to the concept of co-belligerency is flawed. In fact, the notion of war against X and its “associated forces” is little different than the notion of global war, absent refinement of the associated forces concept.

Second, the Just Security proposal also endorses the “associated forces” concept and is, therefore, also flawed, but it at least requires a narrow definition of that term, “to include only those groups that are acting in concert with ISIL as parties to the armed conflict against the United States…” The Lawfare proposal does not define “associated” and applies to any forces “engaged in hostilities,” a much broader frame than “acting in concert with ISIL as parties to the armed conflict…”. It’s questionable that ISIL or any of its alleged associated forces are “engaged in hostilities against the United States.” As far as I’ve seen, the hostilities have been pretty much a one-way street, with U.S. bombings of ISIL. To maintain this asymmetry is why, I suppose, Americans don’t want U.S. boots on the ground.

Bottom line # 2: if you want to authorize use of force against “associated forces” rather than specific named entities (although I recommend against it for the reasons stated above) do so with the Just Security proposal’s reference to “parties to the conflict” rather than Lawfare’s “engaged in hostilities.”

What Happens if Comoros Appeals? (Answer: Not Much.)

by Kevin Jon Heller

According to Marlise Simons at the New York Times, Comoros intends to appeal the OTP’s decision not to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. That’s its right — but it’s a right without a remedy, because the judges cannot order the OTP to investigate the attack. The relevant provision in the Rome Statute is Art. 53:

1.         The Prosecutor shall, having evaluated the information made available to him or her, initiate an investigation unless he or she determines that there is no reasonable basis to proceed under this Statute. In deciding whether to initiate an investigation, the Prosecutor shall consider whether:

(a)     The information available to the Prosecutor provides a reasonable basis to believe that a crime within the jurisdiction of the Court has been or is being committed;

(b)     The case is or would be admissible under article 17; and

(c)     Taking into account the gravity of the crime and the interests of victims, there are nonetheless substantial reasons to believe that an investigation would not serve the interests of justice.

If the Prosecutor determines that there is no reasonable basis to proceed and his or her determination is based solely on subparagraph (c) above, he or she shall inform the Pre-Trial Chamber.

3.         (a)     At the request of the State making a referral under article 14 or the Security Council under article 13, paragraph (b), the Pre-Trial Chamber may review a decision of the Prosecutor under paragraph 1 or 2 not to proceed and may request the Prosecutor to reconsider that decision.

(b)     In addition, the Pre-Trial Chamber may, on its own initiative, review a decision of the Prosecutor not to proceed if it is based solely on paragraph 1 (c) or 2 (c). In such a case, the decision of the Prosecutor shall be effective only if confirmed by the Pre-Trial Chamber.

The problem for Comoros is that the OTP refused to open a formal investigation because it concluded that the crimes in question are not grave enough to warrant investigation — Art. 53(1)(b). As a result, although Comoros has the right under Art. 53(3)(a) to ask the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC) to review the OTP’s decision, the PTC does not have the authority to order the OTP to investigate. All it can do is “request the Prosecutor to reconsider that decision” — to which she would no doubt reply, “thanks, but no.”

The situation would have been very different if the OTP had deemed the crimes adequately grave but refused to investigate because of the “interests of justice” — Art. 53(1)(c). In that case, the PTC would have had the right under Art. 53(3)(b) to review that decision sua sponte and the authority to refuse to confirm the OTP’s decision — which would presumably mean that the PTC could have ordered the OTP to formally investigate. It was thus a very smart move by the OTP to rely on gravity instead of the interests of justice.

No one quite knows what would happen if the PTC ever ordered the OTP to conduct a formal investigation against its will. Such a situation, of course, seems practically untenable. We’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.

The OTP Concludes Israel Is Still Occupying Gaza

by Kevin Jon Heller

As Thomas Escritt has reported for Reuters, the OTP has declined to open a formal investigation into Israel’s attack on the MV Mavi Marmara. I will have much more to say about the decision tomorrow; I agree with the OTP’s conclusion but have serious problems with much of its reasoning. But I thought I’d tease tomorrow’s post by noting that, despite the declination, Israel is going to be very angry at the OTP — because the OTP specifically concludes (as part of its decision to classify the conflict as international) that Israel is still occupying Gaza. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

26. Israel maintains that following the 2005 disengagement, it is no longer an occupying power in Gaza as it does not exercise effective control over the area.

27. However, the prevalent view within the international community is that Israel remains an occupying power in Gaza despite the 2005 disengagement. In general, this view is based on the scope and degree of control that Israel has retained over the territory of Gaza following the 2005 disengagement – including, inter alia, Israel’s exercise of control over border crossings, the territorial sea adjacent to the Gaza Strip, and the airspace of Gaza; its periodic military incursions within Gaza; its enforcement of no-go areas within Gaza near the border where Israeli settlements used to be; and its regulation of the local monetary market based on the Israeli currency and control of taxes and customs duties. The retention of such competences by Israel over the territory of Gaza even after the 2005 disengagement overall supports the conclusion that the authority retained by Israel amounts to effective control.

28. Although it no longer maintains a military presence in Gaza, Israel has not only shown the ability to conduct incursions into Gaza at will, but also expressly reserved the right to do so as required by military necessity. This consideration is potentially significant considering that there is support in international case law for the conclusion that it is not a prerequisite that a State maintain continuous presence in a territory in order to qualify as an occupying power. In particular, the ICTY has held that the law of occupation would also apply to areas where a state possesses “the capacity to send troops within a reasonable time to make the authority of the occupying power felt.” In this respect, it is also noted that the geographic proximity of the Gaza Strip to Israel potentially facilitates the ability of Israel to exercise effective control over the territory, despite the lack of a continuous military presence.

29. Overall, there is a reasonable basis upon which to conclude that Israel continues to be an occupying power in Gaza despite the 2005 disengagement. The Office has therefore proceeded on the basis that the situation in Gaza can be considered within the framework of an international armed conflict in view of the continuing military occupation by Israel.

I’m not certain I agree with this analysis, though the OTP’s conclusion is far from unreasonable. Regardless, let the fireworks begin…

Lawfare Podcast on al-Bahlul

by Kevin Jon Heller

While in DC last week for the ICC/Palestine event at George Mason — I’ll post a link to the video when it becomes available — I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lawfare’s Wells Bennet and Just Security’s Steve Vladeck to discuss the oral argument at the DC Circuit on the al-Bahlul remand, which the three of us attended that morning. You can listen to the podcast at Lawfare here; Steve did most of the talking, because he understands the constitutional issues in the case better than anyone, but I weighed in a few times on the international-law side. I hope you enjoy it — and my thanks to Wells for inviting me to participate.

Mark Kersten on the Terror Attacks in Canada

by Kevin Jon Heller

These days, I usually use Twitter to point readers to blog posts that deserve their attention. But Mark Kersten’s new post at Justice in Conflict is so good — and so important — that I want to highlight it here. The post achieves the near-impossible, passionately indicting Canada’s right-wing government for creating a political environment ripe for terrorism without in any way suggesting that Wednesday’s terror attacks were justified. It’s a truly brilliant post, from top to bottom. Here is a snippet, concerning the Harper government’s foreign-policy disasters:

The Canadian government has actively pursued a political philosophy of retribution and control that tarnishes the country’s image as an ‘honest international broker’. Harper’s record attests to an unyielding mission to reshape Canada’s international identity as a tough and hard-power state. The Harper government plays the part of destructive belligerent in climate change negotiations and tar-sands cheerleader. It is first in line to threaten Palestine with “consequences” if Ramallah pursues accountability for alleged crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. While it isn’t usually described as such (many prefer terms like “militarily engaged”), the reality is that Canada has been at war, primarily in Afghanistan, for most of the last decade. And while we should judge each decision to engage in wars on their own terms, the government has positioned itself as a military – rather than diplomatic or humanitarian – middle power. The role of Canadian citizens in the Afghan detainee scandal has been swept under the rug. The government willfully left a child soldier, Omar Khadr, to rot in Guantanamo and were the only Western government not to request the repatriation of their citizens from that nefarious island prison. It left Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen wrongly accused of terrorism, stranded in Khartoum for years and threatened anyone who tried to help him return to Canada with aiding and abetting terrorism. In a country that takes pride in seeing Lester B. Pearson as the father of peacekeeping, the government prefers to count the number of fighter jets it will buy than the number of peacekeepers it deploys. And, making matters worse, those who disagree with the Harper government’s approach to being “hard on crime”, “tough on justice”, and “a military power” are too often portrayed as naive or betraying Canadian values.

Sadly, it’s not just Canada that has pursued the kind of right-wing policies that make horrific acts of terrorism more likely. Very similar posts could — and should — be written about the Key government in New Zealand, the Abbott government in Australia, and (yes) the Obama government in the US. These misguided policies have done next to nothing to prevent terrorism; they create the illusion of security, not its actuality. Indeed, insofar as they do little more than further radicalize the populations they affect, the policies have made us all that much less safe.

Read Kersten. And if you are on an academic committee that is looking to appoint a brilliant young lecturer, hire him.

Panel at George Mason on the ICC and Palestine

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be participating next week in what should be an excellent event at George Mason University on the ICC and Palestine. The other participants are all excellent — David Luban, Meg DeGuzman, George Bisharat, and the organizer, Noura Erakat. Here is the flyer:

FINALFLYEROCTOBERPANELJpeg

I hope at least some Opinio Juris readers will be able to attend and hear my dire prognostications in person. (If you do, make sure to come say hello.) The event will be live-streamed for those that do not live nearby.

The Invention of the Khorasan Group and Non-Imminent Imminence

by Kevin Jon Heller

I will be back blogging regularly soon, but I want to call readers’ attention to a phenomenal new article at the Intercept by Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain about how the US government has cynically manipulated public fears of terrorism in order to justify its bombing campaign in Syria. Recall that Samantha Power — the UN Ambassador formerly known as a progressive — invoked the scary spectre of the Khorasan Group in her letter to the Security Council concerning the US’s supposed right to bomb terrorists in Syria in “self-defence.” As it turns out, not only is there literally no evidence that the Khorasan Group intends to launch an imminent attack on US interests — unless “imminent” is defined as “sometime before the Rapture” — there is also very little evidence that the Khorasan Group actually exists in a form that could threaten the US. Here is a snippet from the article on the latter point:

Even more remarkable, it turns out the very existence of an actual “Khorasan Group” was to some degree an invention of the American government. NBC’s Engel, the day after he reported on the U.S. Government’s claims about the group for Nightly News, seemed to have serious second thoughts about the group’s existence, tweeting “Syrian activists telling us they’ve never heard of Khorosan or its leader.”

Indeed, a NEXIS search for the group found almost no mentions of its name prior to the September 13 AP article based on anonymous officials. There was one oblique reference to it in a July 31 CNN op-ed by Peter Bergen. The other mention was an article in the LA Times from two weeks earlier about Pakistan which mentioned the group’s name as something quite different than how it’s being used now: as “the intelligence wing of the powerful Pakistani Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur.” Tim Shorrock noted that the name appears in a 2011 hacked Stratfor email published by WikiLeaks, referencing a Dawn article that depicts them as a Pakistan-based group which was fighting against and “expelled by” (not “led by”) Bahadur.

There are serious questions about whether the Khorasan Group even exists in any meaningful or identifiable manner. Aki Peritz, a CIA counterterrorism official until 2009, told Time: “I’d certainly never heard of this group while working at the agency,” while Obama’s former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said: ”We used the term [Khorasan] inside the government, we don’t know where it came from…. All I know is that they don’t call themselves that.”

I don’t know for a fact that the Khorasan Group doesn’t exist. But it is profoundly troubling that the Obama administration has provided no evidence that it does — especially given that its case for the international legality of bombing Syria is based so heavily on the supposed threat the Khorasan Group poses to the “homeland.”

And let’s not forget that the Obama administration is doing everything it can to denude the concept of “self-defence” of all meaning. Here is the Intercept article on the “imminent” threat posed to the US by the maybe-existing Khorasan Group:

One senior American official on Wednesday described the Khorasan plotting as “aspirational” and said that there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works.

Literally within a matter of days, we went from “perhaps in its final stages of planning its attack” (CNN) to “plotting as ‘aspirational’” and “there did not yet seem to be a concrete plan in the works” (NYT).

Late last week, Associated Press’ Ken Dilanian – the first to unveil the new Khorasan Product in mid-September – published a new story explaining that just days after bombing “Khorasan” targets in Syria, high-ranking U.S. officials seemingly backed off all their previous claims of an “imminent” threat from the group. Headlined “U.S. Officials Offer More Nuanced Take on Khorasan Threat,” it noted that “several U.S. officials told reporters this week that the group was in the final stages of planning an attack on the West, leaving the impression that such an attack was about to happen.” But now:

Senior U.S. officials offered a more nuanced picture Thursday of the threat they believe is posed by an al-Qaida cell in Syria targeted in military strikes this week, even as they defended the decision to attack the militants.

James Comey, the FBI director, and Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, each acknowledged that the U.S. did not have precise intelligence about where or when the cell, known as the Khorasan Group, would attempt to strike a Western target. . . .

Kirby, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said, “I don’t know that we can pin that down to a day or month or week or six months….We can have this debate about whether it was valid to hit them or not, or whether it was too soon or too late… We hit them. And I don’t think we need to throw up a dossier here to prove that these are bad dudes.”

Regarding claims that an attack was “imminent,” Comey said: “I don’t know exactly what that word means… ‘imminent’” — a rather consequential admission given that said imminence was used as the justification for launching military action in the first place.

According to the Obama administration, in short, the US is entitled to act in self-defence against “bad dudes” no matter when — or even if — those “bad dudes” might launch an armed attack against the US. This isn’t even the Bush administration’s “anticipatory self-defence.” This is, for lack of a better expression, “hypothetical self-defence.” Apparently, the US government believes it is entitled to use force against a non-state actor anywhere in the world as long as it can imagine a future state of affairs in which that actor would attack it.

The mind — and international law — reels.

Does the Collective Self-Defense Justification Extend to Khorasan? If Not, Then Is There One?

by Julian Ku

I agree with Jens’ excellent post on the importance of the “unwilling or unable” standard to the US justification for legal strikes on non-state actors in Syria.  I agree this action may reveal state practice supporting (or rejecting) this legal justification.  I am curious whether the UK, France, or other states that may be participating in Syria strikes will embrace this theory. (I already know the Russians have roundly rejected this US justification). I also wonder whether this legal justification will weaken, as a policy matter, the ability of the US to effectively attack ISIS.

I do have one additional observation. Tacked on, almost as an afterthought, Ambassador Power’s letter notes that:

In addition, the United States has initiated military actions against al-Qaida elements in Syria known as the Khorasan Group to address terrorist threats that they pose to the United States and our partners and allies.”

The vague wording of the letter about Khorasan (threats to “the United States and our partners and allies”) as compared to the pretty specific language about ISIS’s attacks on Iraq  (“ to end the continuing attacks on Iraq, to protect Iraqi citizens, “) suggests that Khorasan is not currently engaged in armed attacks on Iraq.  This means that the U.S. is making a much broader international law claim than for its attacks on ISIS.  The U.S. is attacking Khorasan because, like Al Qaeda, it is a terrorist threat to the U.S. itself.  But no actual armed attacks have yet occurred (as far as I know).

It is therefore worth noting whether more  states object to the attacks on Khorasan than on ISIS, because the Khorasan attacks have a weaker international legal justification. My guess is that objecting states like Russia will not bother distinguishing between the two. But it will be interesting to see whether US allies will refuse to join strikes on Khorasan, even if they are willing to strike ISIS in Syria.

Mike Lewis Is Wrong About the Nature of Self-Defence

by Kevin Jon Heller

Mike Lewis has a guest post at Just Security today responding to Ryan Goodman’s recent post exploring what the US’s claimed “unwilling or unable” test for self-defence against non-state actors means in the context of Syria and ISIS. Ryan, careful scholar as always, rightly points out that the test “remains controversial under international law.” Mike doesn’t seem to have any such qualms, but that’s not what I want to respond to here. Instead, it’s important to note that Mike makes a basic error concerning how the “unwilling or unable” test functions — assuming for sake of argument it is a valid approach to self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter (emphasis mine):

It is important to note that this interpretation does not give the US unlimited license to act in violation of the sovereignty of other states as some opponents of the standard claim. There are limits and dangers associated with taking such a course of action. First of all, an intervening state can only take such actions after giving the host/target state a meaningful opportunity to prevent its territory from being used by the non-state actor to launch attacks. In the case of Syria, there is no question that it is unable to control the territory under ISIS control so further delays are unnecessary. Secondly, the intervening state does so at its own peril. Syria can rightfully interpret any strikes as aggression by the US and it is justified in taking steps to prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks.

Um, no. The entire point of arguing self-defence — in any form, including pursuant to the controversial “unwilling or unable” test — is that it cures any violation of state sovereignty under Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter. So if the US attacked ISIS in Syria because Syria was unwilling or unable to prevent ISIS from using its territory as a base for attacks, the US would not violate Art. 2(4) and Syria would have no right whatsoever to act in self-defence against that armed attack. Indeed, any attempt to “prevent such attacks and to destroy the drones/aircraft conducting such attacks” would represent an act of aggression by Syria against the US, thereby opening the door to legitimate acts of self-defence against Syria itself.

Again, I don’t accept that the “unwilling or unable” test reflects current customary international law. But it’s important not to let that debate obscure how self-defence functions under Art. 51 of the UN Charter.