Waiting for the UN
The Obama administration embraces international paralysis

White House photo by Samantha Appleton

President Barack Obama addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York, NY, Sept. 23, 2009.

Article Highlights

  • The White House is wrapped in a web of international law & institutions that have brought only paralysis & indecision

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  • The UN offers the empty promise that it can police the world if nations give up their right to go to war

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  • UN limits American power & avoids hard choices necessary to protect our national security & maintain world order

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Turmoil in the Middle East has exposed the vulnerabilities of President Barack Obama’s listless foreign policy. As Iran closes in on its nuclear prize and props up Assad’s bloody regime in Syria, the United States has the opportunity to deal a crippling blow to its oldest, most dangerous enemy in the region. U.S. military strikes could topple Tehran’s close allies in Damascus and destroy the mullahs’ nuclear infrastructure, potentially ushering in more democratic regimes that would be at peace with their neighbors.

But instead of seizing the initiative, the White House has wrapped itself in a web of international law and institutions that have brought only paralysis and indecision. From the top down, administration officials have suggested that they need the blessing of the U.N. before they can use force to advance American interests in the Middle East. “For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake,” Obama recently said about Syria. “What happened in Libya was we mobilized the international community, had a U.N. Security Council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation.”

"Obama’s reliance on the crutch of the United Nations only underscores the deeper paralysis of his foreign policy." -- John Yoo

Libya taught the administration the wrong lessons. What the White House sees as a successful strategy of acting as part of a United Nations coalition was in fact a near-disaster. Waiting on the U.N. Security Council for approval of airstrikes allowed Muammar Qaddafi’s regime to come within a day or two of wiping out the Libyan resistance. The delay reduced our ability to exert influence on the new regime that has emerged since. The Obama administration hopes to reassure those who distrust American unilateralism by submerging our national interests into those of an undefined world community. The result is that America still carries the main burden of maintaining international peace and stability, but with a loss of speed, flexibility, and decisiveness.

Obama is now repeating this mistake, but this time the stakes are dramatically higher. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that they intend to prevent, not contain, Iranian nuclear weapons. Obama, for example, has warned, “I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.” He promises to use “all elements of American power,” not just political, diplomatic, and economic pressure, but, “yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.” But rather than prepare the nation and our allies for the consequences of a military strike, the White House has placed its hopes in a scheme of escalating U.N. economic sanctions that may delay but cannot halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons.

Obama’s reliance on the crutch of the United Nations only underscores the deeper paralysis of his foreign policy. He has not just shrunk from dangers, but has passively neglected opportunity. His administration has rushed for the exits in Iraq even as our troops defeated the insurgency and midwifed democratic government. In Afghanistan, the White House has ordered a hasty and premature drawdown just as a surge of forces has put the Taliban on the defensive. Obama’s unnecessary concessions on nuclear weapons in the New START treaty and his unilateral withdrawal of an antiballistic missile system in Eastern Europe have not “reset” relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s reelection promises a continuation of Moscow’s frosty American policy. China continues its rise to great military power status; Obama responds with more talk about a “pivot” toward Asia but stations a few thousand Marines in Australia.

The upcoming November elections present Republicans with an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Obama’s withdrawal of American leadership from the world. They can begin by making a powerful political and legal case for unilateral military action against the dictators in Syria and Iran. The Assad regime continues to wage war on the Syrian people, with some estimates reaching 10,000 deaths and a hundred thousand refugees. It supports terrorist groups arrayed against Israel, it has attempted to dominate Lebanon, and it served as a conduit for insurgents who journeyed to Iraq to kill American soldiers. An American no-fly zone, combined with selected strikes and military aid for rebels, could rescue millions from the boot of a vicious dictatorship and remove a regime that has threatened and attacked its neighbors and destabilized the region. Regime change would serve larger U.S. interests too: It would blunt Iran’s campaign for allies and remove an enemy in a strategic location in the Middle East.

Though it poses a more difficult military problem, Iran presents the more direct legal case. Iran continues to defy U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that it halt any work on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. It seems beyond doubt that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons under cover of a peaceful civilian energy program in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran supports terror groups throughout the Middle East and it sells weapons and knowledge to other rogue states, such as North Korea and Syria. It has served as a base for insurgents who killed American soldiers in Iraq, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, and has plotted to kill a foreign ambassador on U.S. soil. Like the regimes in Syria and Libya, the mullahs in Iran feel little reluctance to oppress their people to stay in power.

Fostering regime change in Iran would promote American interests and enhance global welfare. Iran seeks to export its fundamentalist revolution throughout the region. It stokes the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Its president promises to destroy Israel. It interferes with Iraq’s young democracy. It has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world’s oil exports travels. It has attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf. A nuclear Iran could give the mullahs regional military superiority and immunity from American conventional attack, which would allow it to expand its support of terrorism and efforts to destabilize its neighbors.

But Republicans should draw a broader contrast with Obama’s foreign policy than just Syria and Iran. They should reject the idea that the United States’s right to protect its security, advance its interests, and foster international stability must pass a “global test” (as John Kerry put it in the 2004 elections). While the U.N. can certainly play a helpful role, it has not become the mechanism for collective security that President Franklin Roosevelt hoped for at the end of World War II. It has become an obstacle, rather than a handmaid, to international peace.

"Like the League of Nations before it, the UN can only provide a false sense of security in the face of gathering threats." -- John Yoo

The U.N. Charter guarantees the “territorial integrity” and “political independence” of every nation. It doesn’t matter whether the member is a market democracy or a brutal dictatorship. Article 2(4) and 51 of the charter prohibits the use of force except in self-defense, which international officials and legal scholars generally believe prohibits war except when an attack has occurred or is imminent. The only solution to looming, but not immediate, threats to national security or global stability is to turn to the Security Council for help. Security Council approval, however, has produced mostly feebleness. The charter gives the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China a veto over any Security Council decision. China and Russia oppose interference in what they consider “internal” affairs, such as the repression of political and economic freedoms by authoritarian regimes. They can usually be counted on to protect other nondemocratic regimes, as they did in Iraq in 2003 and have done so far in Syria.

Making the case for unilateral U.S. military action would only return us to the state of affairs that prevailed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union prevented the United Nations from combating threats to global welfare. The United States waged war with the U.N.’s blessing in Korea (thanks to a Soviet boycott of the vote), the 1991 Gulf war, Somalia, and Haiti, but it would have acted without it. The United States acted on its own during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam war, the 1980s interventions in Central America, Grenada, Libya, and Panama, covert operations in Afghanistan and other places during the Cold War, and Kosovo in the 1990s.

In these places, the United States did not just advance its own interests, it also benefited global welfare by containing the spread of communism and ending human rights catastrophes. By contrast, the U.N. offers the empty promise that it can police the world if nations give up their right to go to war. But the U.N. possesses no armed forces, has a crippled decision-making system, and lacks political legitimacy. As a defender of the status quo, the U.N. tries to prohibit efforts by the United States and its allies to spread democracy and capitalism and to stop nations from oppressing their own people. The U.N. has become obsolete: It was designed to stop the massive interstate conflicts of World Wars I and II, but the number of conflicts of this kind has dropped to some of the lowest levels since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Its bias for the status quo impedes solutions to the primary security threats of the 21st century: rogue nations, international terrorist groups, humanitarian disasters, and WMD proliferation.

The Obama administration’s reliance on the U.N. limits American power and only avoids the hard choices necessary to protect our national security and maintain world order. America need not toss aside the U.N., which still provides a useful forum for discussion and debate. But a president should ignore it when authoritarian nations try to veto wars that are necessary to preserve the peace. Like the League of Nations before it, the U.N. can only provide a false sense of security in the face of gathering threats. A Republican president can promise a new birth of American leadership that will maintain an international order built on free markets, liberal democracy, and peaceful trade, and which can take preventive action to stop threats such as Syria and Iran.

John Yoo is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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