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.
In Syria, Secretary General Ban has appointed a multinational team of experts to investigate the tragic events in Damascus on his behalf. Obama should wait for their report. There is little military rationale for immediate action, and key allies, including much of the British Parliament, insist on reading the UN report to corroborate what the White House claims to know.
If that report is compelling, it will help Obama make the case to the American people and the international community that strong action is necessary and that this action may lack Security Council approval. History shows that the US needs the backing of a large coalition to give any military operation legitimacy, to strengthen and sustain support at home, and to ensure other countries contribute to the costly and difficult task of stabilizing and rebuilding.
Obama should not give the UN a free pass, however. The president should insist that the secretary general’s investigation follows a credible process and does not become, to paraphrase Ban’s predecessor Kofi Annan during the Kosovo crisis, “a drawn-out diplomatic dance” that Assad and his supporters use to dodge responsibility. Ban has already taken the first step in avoiding this by meeting his timeline for collecting evidence and withdrawing his investigators from Damascus.
The president should urge him to set an additional timeline for analyzing the evidence and reporting his commission’s findings. Ban has tried to expedite the analysis but resisted setting a timeline for releasing the findings. Setting a realistic timeline, however, would make it harder for self-serving governments to delay or rush the process and gives the final report more integrity.
Even then, the question that must be answered is whether military action will improve the humanitarian situation or make a political settlement more likely. While the American public is reluctant to support another war, basic humanity and a commitment to defend the prohibition on chemical weapons use calls for a sharp response – even if world leaders still wrestle with what form that response should take. Here the UN secretary general can offer less help.
Yet this does not change the fact that President Obama should give Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon the chance to release his report before he has the United States take action.
Michael Bluman Schroeder is a professorial lecturer at American University’s School of International Service. He teaches courses on international organizations and the UN system and has written about the UN secretary general’s role in international crises.