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In all the debates swirling around whether the U.S. should launch a unilateral military attack on Syria, as the Obama Administration is now seeking to do, one key point is getting very little attention: it would violate international law.

The fundamental rule of contemporary international law is that states cannot attack other states. The U.N. Charter embodies this rule and makes only two exceptions to it: a state can attack another state if it is authorized to do so by a Security Council resolution, or if the attacking state is acting in genuine self-defense.

Neither of these exceptions applies in the case of the U.S. and Syria. But a third basis for the legality of intervention has been suggested: “Customary international law,” a somewhat mysterious concept that comes down to the idea that, if enough of the international community has over time come to treat certain actions as legal, then…

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