Via The New Inquiry, Aaron Bady explains that acting arbitrarily is the point:
American foreign policy is full of double standards. But if we observe the hypocrisy of our leaders and are scandalized by it—John Kerry lunching with the Assads, Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein—then we actually misunderstand what “foreign policy” is and is for.
If American foreign policy is anything, it is not even-handed and impartial. It is a state arrogating to itself the right to make arbitrary choices, to make the rules while other countries only follow them. And to prove that distinction the US must not only establish “red lines,” and enforce them, but it is the very arbitrary nature of those red lines which allows them to function as signs on the international stage. Lawlessness is how a state proves itself sovereign; submission to law is the sign of the weak.
“Legality” only obscures the real issue, which is why we are hearing so much talk about it, why so many commentators are pretending it matters. To argue about whether or not the US’s attack on Syria would be legal—and to bicker and argue about whether or not the use of chemical weapons is outlawed, or simply breaks an international “norm”—is to maintain the fiction that the world is governed by a system of voluntary contractual obligations that we have all, at some primal originary moment, agreed to be regulated by. Condemning the US for its illegality or observing that Syria is not specifically banned from using chemical weapons demonstrates an unfounded faith in international law’s relevance.
Everyone knows that the United States cannot control the outcome of the Syrian civil war, even the most hawkish politicians and commentators. Obama and his cabinet understand it best of all. But the outcome of the Syrian civil war is precisely not what this is about; it is about showing that the US has the power to arbitrarily dictate to smaller and weaker nations.
This is not cynicism. Cynicism would be to observe a lack of consistency in American actions—to observe hypocrisy as simply the absence of good faith—when what we are seeing is, itself, a consistent system of rules and injunctions that have defined American identity for many, many years.