An expert on international law at Washington and Lee University's School of Law sees the shadow of Iraq looming large in the current crisis over how the world will respond to alleged chemical attacks against its own people by the Syrian government.
Mark Drumbl, director of the Transnational Institute at the W&L School of Law, notes that the use of force by one nation against another is legal only when either authorized by the United Nations Security Council or on the grounds of self-defense.
"It's difficult to make the argument that the use of chemical weapons within Syria itself rises to the level of an imminent threat to interests outside the country," said Drumbl.
"That leaves us with the following situation. Can countries use force against another country that harms its own citizens, on humanitarian grounds? And the answer to that is, not really."
All of the conversation about Syria, Drumbl adds, is happening under the shadow of the force that was used in Iraq a decade ago. At the time, the coalition built by the United States operated outside the framework of the U.N. Security Council.
"There was a lot of concern at the time that when the United States the coalition used force against Iraq, it would liberalize the use of violence in international relations to punish rogue states and rogue dictators. In actuality, it's had the opposite effect in the Syrian case," Drumbl said.
Because no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq despite the assurances that they did, countries are now nervous about going into Syria.
"The shadow of Iraq hasn't increased the use of force, but has actually shrunk that space. In this sense, when it comes to protecting human rights, Iraq was not only controversial at the time, but now, if you believe that missile use would deter further chemical weapon attacks in Syria, you have the situation where the shadow of Iraq has shrunk that space for the use of force in that context."
Drumbl has just returned from speaking at the 7th Annual International Humanitarian Law Dialogs, a historic gathering of renowned international prosecutors and leading professionals in the field of international criminal law. The subject of the conference was "The Hot Summer after the Arab Spring: Accountability and the Rule of Law." Drumbl addressed the work of all the international criminal tribunals this year, focusing on accomplishments and challenges.
He is the Class of 1975 Alumni Law Professor and the author of "Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy" (Oxford University Press, 2012).