For earlier articles on Syria by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria page.
A Hard Truth: Obama is a Weak Leader on Foreign Policy
The truth is hard to accept: President Obama is a very weak leader on foreign policy issues.
This is a painful admission, because like many others the Trenchant Observer had high hopes and expectations for Obama when he assumed office in January, 2009. He is still far and away superior to any of the candidates in the Republican primaries who could potentially challenge him for the presidency in 2012.
But he stumbled badly in Libya, and was saved only by the intitiative of France and England which led to him getting involved, “leading from the rear.” America’s “leading from the rear” resulted in great delay before military action was taken, and consequently the loss of many civilian lives in Libya.
Now, he is stumbling badly again–in Syria. Nicholas Sarkozy is consumed by the first-round presidential elections soon to be held in France, and has declared that France will only act militarily pursuant to Security Council authorization. David Cameron is unable to assume the mantle of leadership on his own.
So, in effect, following the Russian and Chinese vetoes of a mild U.N. Security Council resolution on February 4–which explicitly ruled out the use of force–and a General Assembly resolution on February 16 which harshly condemned the widespread commission of grave human rights abuses by the Syrian government.
China and Russia have burned their bridges in the Middle East, probably for a generation. Both have shamelessly vetoed the Security Council resolution on February 4 endorsing in part the Arab League’s peace plan–which ruled out the use of force. Both voted against a General Assembly Resolution on Frebruary 16 condemning al-Assad’s continuing butchery in Syria, and calling for its immediate halt. Amazingly, both China and Russia also voted against a Human Rights Council resolution on March 1 which concdemned the killing and called for access for humanitarian relief.
Now, on March 4, China proposes something very similar to what the February 4 Security Council provided for. Unfortunately, thousands have died since then, the butchery continues, and measures short of the authorization of military force or its use are unlikely to stop Bashar al-Assad’s raging commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In a word, no forceful action has been taken to stop the killing in Syria, and none is yet in sight. Obama’s actions have been marked by their passivity, and by his absolute failure to deal in a serious way with the ongoing carnage on the ground in Syria. As in Libya, he has been a commander in chief notable primarily for his absence from the center of decision-making during a crisis of great importance to the United States and the world. He has not assumed the mantle of leadership, and even reportedly vetoed this last week proposals from within hhis administration for the use of force.
The World–Leaderless and Helpless Before the Ongoing Terror in Syria
The world stands leaderless and helpess before the ongoing terror and commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes by Bashar al-Assad and his government in Syria.
This week the U.N. official in charge of humanitarian assistance was refused entry to Syria. Al-Assad refuses to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent to enter Homs with humanitarian assistance and to remove the wounded. Having been promised access, they now begin their third day of waiting. Bombardments of Homs and other cities and towns continue.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has been reduced to an almost tragic figure, pleading publicly with Al-Assad to allow humanitarian aid in and to stop the killing. It is almost as if he expects that the Syrian Dictator might be swayed by appeals to reason and to humanitarian considerations–at this point in time, after all such previous appeals have failed spectacularly.
Leaders from civilized nations and their populations have trouble believing that true evil exists. They need to grasp that it does exist, now, in Syria. Hitler existed. Stalin existed. They were real. So is Al-Assad.
Ban Ki-Moon recently made a horrendous mistake when he appointed Kofi Annan to mediate the dispute in Syria, in effect to “mediate” the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity. How you can even negotiate with such a murderer without bringing to bear credible threats of the use of force is beyond the Observer’s understanding. The idea of mediating the commission of such crimes is a fundamentally flawed concept, and how it ever got out of the Secretary General’s office defies comprehension. It was an act born of desperation, a desperate ploy, it would seem.
In the event, as was to be expected, Kofi Annan has not even been able to get into to Syria to meet with al-Assad, who continues his commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Homs and elsewhere in the country.
It is a sad spectacle, when the world community faces the commission of such horrendous crimes without a leader, helpless.
Obama’s Dangerous Drift and Lack of Leadership on Syria and also on Israel and Iran
Obama should be that leader, but he seems driven only by factors that might affect his re-election in October. Instead of leading efforts to mobilize effective action against al-Assad, including military action if required, he is on the stump giving political speeches, even if they aren’t called that, fighting to win the daily news cycle as if he were in the last two weeks of the presidential campaign in October.
The world is leaderless, and Obama is stumbling on Syria, and also on Israel and Iran.
His talk of “all options are on the table” with respect to Iran has now become an oft-repeated mantra, whose force has become so weakened that the president himself feels constrained to assure the world that he is “not bluffing”. Once you have to tell people you are not bluffing, your credibility is already on very weak ground indeed.
His foreign policy attention is riveted on Netanyahu’s visit to the Washington next week, where the Israeli Prime Minister will meet with Obama and also with the leading Israeli lobby in the country. Netanyahu and Israel do have an impact on the elction, through their impact on American supporters and political contributors. That’s one reason why Obama is paying such close attention.
Yet the one nagging problem, far from the lights and noise of the political arena, remains. That problem is that Syria, and Israel and Iran are part of the real world, outside of U.S. electoral politics and the 24-hour news cycle in the U.S. Obama’s decisions will have far-reaching impacts on what happens on the ground in each of these countries, wholly aside from whatever impact they might have on the American presidential elections.
Obama’s Blind Spot: International Law
Obama seems to have it exactly backwards in terms of principle, talking of the option of Israel–with U.S. acquiescence or assistance–attacking Iran to put their nuclear weapons program out of business, at least for a while.
Under international law, there is no basis whatsoever for a military attack on Iran in the absence of Security Council authorization. To argue that Israel is acting in self-defense would stretch that concept (contained in Article 2(4) and Article 51 of the U.N. Charter) far past the breaking point.
Moreover, U.S. military assistance to Israel generally contains the condition that the weapons may only be used for self-defense. No argument that an attack on Iran was justified by self-defense could be made with a straight face, without completely eliminating the meaning of that term in domestic legislation (which applies to military assistance to many countries), not to speak of its lack of foundation under international law and the U.N. Charter.
At the same time, Obama should be aware that the Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran is a party contains a withdrawal clause that Iran might well invoke in order to withdraw from the NPT after an armed attack by Israel (with or without the acquiescence or support of the United States).
Article X(1) of the NPT provides:
Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.
–For a short but insightful discussion of the withdrawal clause and its history, see Jenny Nielsen and John Simpson, “The NPT Withdrawal Clause and its Negotiating History,” in Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, MCICS NPT Review Issue (2004).
In sharp contrast, military action to relieve civilian populations from attacks by tanks, anti-aircraft guns and artillery in Syria, and the blocking of humanitarian relief, could probably be justified under international law, even without the authorization of the Security Council. This in effect was the position taken by the United States with the support of NATO and other countries when it bombed Serbia in 1999, to bring to a halt the crimes against humanity being committed in Kosovo.
In short, international law would arguably permit military action in Syria under the present extraordinary conditions that exist there, whereas an Israeli armed attack on Iran to halt its nuclear program would be a flagrant violation of the U.N. Charter, international law, and U.S. domestic legal restrictions on the use by Israel of weapons purchased from the U.S. or with U.S. funds. Moreover, an attack on Iran might well lead to Iranian withdrawal from the NPT, making resolution over the longer term of the Iranian nuclear question even more problematic.
The Consequences of Drift and Inaction in Syria, Israel, and Iran
Obama’s drift and lack of leadership are, in view of the foregoing, extremely consequential. By not leading the international community in efforts to halt al-Assad, by force if necessary, in accordance with international law, and by verbally allowing the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, in a manner which could actually lead the Israelis to think they might have a green light, he is in a position to cause an extraordinary reversal of fortunes for the United States, and a much broader war in the Middle East. Obama’s lack of strategic sense also makes it hard for him to see how opposing al-Assad could have the additional benefit of weakening Iran’s reach into Syria, Gaza (with Hamas) and Lebanon (with Hezbollah).
Al-Assad’s butchery could continue, while Israel attacks Iran, igniting a regional conflict. At that point it would not only be China and Russia excercising their vetoes in the Security Council to protect al-Assad and gain time for him to finish wiping out his opponents, but also the United States invoking its veto to avoid condemnation and action against Israel and the U.S. under Chapter VII of the Charter, for violation of the prohibition against the threat or use of force contained in Article 2 (4) of the U.N. Charter–the most important norm in the Charter. Come to think of it, President Obama might usefully reread that language, particularly the part about the “threat..of the use of force”.
Obama has paid little attention to international law. This is evident, to cite but a few examples, from his failure to apply the provisions of the Convention Against Torture to prosecute those responsible for crafting and implementing the Bush torture policy, in his support of targeted killings and failure to prosecute those responsible for extraordinary renderings, and finally through his adoption of an expansive military doctrine and practice of using drones to execute individuals put on a targets list. The latter has even included U.S. citizens, and the targeting of unknown individuals who meet certain “parameters” that indicate they belong to the Taliban, Al Queda or other terrorist groups.
He did not use the words “international law” in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, on December 10, 2009. We can now see, much better than we could at the time, how extremely significant that omission was.
Obama and administration officials speak of ”red lines” when they are telling other governments what actions might provoke a military response. Foreign officials have even begun to use the term of ”red lines”. This is the way states communicated with each other in the 19th century. Obama doesn’t use the language, grammar and vocabulary of international law, which has evolved into a highly developed form of precise communication built on the legitimacy and acceptance of the principles involved. He should.
As the Butchery Continues in Syria and Israel Threatens to Attack Iran, What is to be Done?
What is to be done?P
Leadership of the world must come from somewhere, if chaos is to be avoided. Preferably that leadership should come from the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama.
But if it doesn’t, if Obama falters, other states or groups of states must come forward, not only to lead military action in Syria if required to halt the killing, but also to prevent an Israeli attack–with or without U.S. backing–on Iran.
International peace and security hang in the balance.
The Trenchant Observer
–For earlier articles by The Trenchant Observer, see the Articles on Syria page.
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