Americans have long been ambivalent about ceding global leadership to the United Nations. Bill Clinton didn’t have UN approval to attack Serbia in 1999 just as George W. Bush didn’t for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Now Mr. Obama may also be turning his back on the UN as the civil war in Syria poses three ominous threats: the prospect of more civilian massacres, the rise of Al Qaeda in Syria, and the possible use of chemical weapons.
An administration breach with the UN came to the surface last Thursday just after Russia and China vetoed yet another resolution in the Security Council aimed at toughening sanctions against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said the Council had “utterly failed” Syria. Ms. Rice then said Washington would work with “a diverse range of partners outside the Security Council” (read: coalition of the willing) to take action against the Assad government.
Those US actions so far fall short of direct military intervention. But the effect may be similar.
The CIA is monitoring the flow of weapons to anti-Assad rebels from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It is also providing vital communications training and equipment to rebel groups, and perhaps intelligence support. And the United States is trying to hinder flights and ships believed to be carrying fuel or arms to Syria.
The Obama administration has warned Mr. Assad that he would “cross a serious red line” if he used his vast stockpiles of chemical weapons. On Monday, Syria not only revealed for the first time that it had such weapons, but it also threatened to use them if Syria were “exposed to external aggression.”
Concerns about these deadly weapons have led the US, Israel, and Europe to make preparations to intervene in Syria at any moment, especially if the Assad regime collapses. “It’s going to take an international effort when Assad falls – and he will fall – in order to secure these weapons,” said Adm. William H. McRaven, the head of the military’s Special Operations forces, last March.
The Security Council’s attempts over the past few months to impose a cease-fire and seek negotiations between Assad and the rebels has failed. Syrian tanks continue to bombard civilian areas. Nearly 15,000 people have been killed since the pro-democracy protests began in March, 2011.
Moral leadership on Syria is slowly ebbing away from the UN, forcing Obama to assume the mantle of a global leader ready to take action to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, a war with weapons of mass destruction, and Al Qaeda from establishing a new beachhead.
Russia and China still have time to bolster UN leadership in Syria to save the body’s leadership in a future crisis. The UN was set up to deal with issues like genocide, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Syria is now a dangerous mix of all three.
A moral mantle may be difficult to bear for those two veto-wielding council members. But if they don’t don this mantle, Obama will continue to do so.