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Opinion

US must wait for UN chemical weapons report before acting on Syria

President Obama and Congress should wait for the UN secretary general’s chemical weapons report before using force in Syria. No nation will be bound by the report, but it can confer legitimacy on strikes against Bashar al-Assad and weaken the legitimacy of those shielding him.

By Michael Bluman SchroederOp-ed contributor / September 5, 2013

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill Sept. 4 to advance President Obama's request for congressional authorization for military strikes in Syria. Op-ed contributor Michael Bluman Schroeder writes: '[B]asic humanity and a commitment to defend the prohibition on chemical weapons use calls for a sharp response.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Should the United States give up on the United Nations because Russia will veto a Security Council resolution on Syria?

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Several Democrats and Republicans in Congress have recently found something to agree on: The UN is not worth waiting on in Syria. They rightly point out that Russian intransigence makes a Security Council resolution impossible. But the UN is more than one institution. The Security Council’s paralysis implores the US and the international community to ask more from other key UN institutions, especially the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

President Obama and Congress should wait for the secretary general’s report on its investigation of chemical weapons use in Damascus before using military force in Syria. No nation will be bound by the report, but it can confer legitimacy on those calling for a concerted response and weaken the legitimacy of those shielding perpetrators of chemical weapons attacks.

The rush to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 without a stamp of approval from the UN cost the US the support of military allies and tarnished its claim to be a restrained and benevolent superpower.

Now, Mr. Obama claims Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, and Obama has threatened military strikes in response. While it is crucial for the United States to be able to ascertain the truth of that claim on its own, it is also crucial to have the US report on the use of chemical weapons verified by the report and evidence of the UN. Otherwise, the US will once again risk going it alone.

Since the tenure of former UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold in the 1950s, proactive secretaries general have carved out an important role in crisis diplomacy. Governments and citizens have often turned to the secretary general to verify claims that a government’s behavior has transgressed a limit that the international community should defend – including violations of a widely valued legal taboo against the use of chemical weapons. The UN General Assembly and Security Council have previously endorsed the secretary general’s role in investigating allegations of chemical weapons attacks.

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