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International Politics

Obama, ISIS and the Death of the United Nations


On September 23rd, the United States commenced bombing operations against Islamic State targets in Syria. Aircraft bombed enemy infrastructure, equipment parks, logistical facilities and other high-value targets across a broad swath of territory, from Ramadi to Rakka and Aleppo. Air attacks have been launched every day and night since then, striking at ISIS economic targets as well including the oil refineries that are a major source of financing for the insurgent group. The US has not been alone: France has joined us in bombing ISIS in Iraq, though not in Syria; while Arab partners including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait have participated in the new Syrian campaign.

This extension of the air war into Syria was inevitable. President Obama declared our mission to be “to destroy ISIS”: and ISIS gestated in Syria before metastasizing to Iraq[1]. To really eliminate the terrorist group, it would be necessary to deny them any sanctuary, and that meant widening the theater of operations. It is important to note that to really eliminate ISIS, not just drive them underground, ground troops will be necessary. The President has promised that they will not be American soldiers; but that means others must step up to fill the vacuum. The Kurdish peshmerga  are being armed and trained by NATO, but not only will they be loath to leave their own lands, it is doubtful whether the Iraqi and Syrian Arabs will welcome them. The Iraqi Army is a shambles and will remain so for months or years to come. Turkey is not eager to intervene, and the Arabs anyway distrust their former Ottoman oppressors. Who will root out ISIS in Syria? The “moderate” Free Syrian Army? And when they fail to materialize, who doubts that it will be our G.I.’s who are tasked with this duty yet again?


President Obama nonetheless felt impelled to act against ISIS and he was certainly right in this. At the very least, it was necessary to prevent a total collapse of Iraq and Kurdistan. A caliphate that rules over 8 million subjects is bad enough; one that rules over 40 million across Mesopotamia would be nightmarish. Then we would certainly have seen US troops dispatched. The air campaign is a “stitch in time” and the President is hopeful he can avoid escalation, even though the Middle East has for millennia been a rock upon which hopes are dashed. Mr. Obama is not so naïve as to believe that airpower alone will solve the problem of ISIS, but it will buy time: time for the US mid-term elections to pass, time for the Kurds to be rearmed with heavier weaponry, time to reorganize the demoralized units of the Iraqi Army, and time to stitch together a coalition of Sunnis and Shiites, Arabs and Persians, united only in their fear and loathing of the Islamic Caliphate. It might not last long; it might not be enough; but the alternative is once again using American bayonets; so the President would just as soon try the alternatives first.

Mr. Obama hopes that he will be able to strike a deal with Mr. Rouhani, the President of Iran. There is already a tacit understanding in place regarding ISIS, with the Shiite-majority Iraqi government acting as intermediary. The negotiations between the United States and Iran go far beyond the question of nuclear enrichment; if successful, they could lead to a normalization of relations between the “Great Satan” and the “Mad Ayatollahs”. Iran wields enormous influence in Syria through its Levantine proxies Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite faction. A new modus vivendi between the US and Iran could lead to an “understanding” in Syria: the maintenance of an Alawite government in Syria with some increased Sunni and Christian participation, but the departure of Mr. Assad to some comfortable exile. Such a deal might be acceptable to all parties and allow a reunited Syrian Army turn its undivided attention on ISIS. There are your ground troops.

Another alternative scenario is for the US to recognize that Bashar the Butcher might nevertheless be the lesser of two evils and accept a government victory in the civil war[2]. The US is understandably reluctant to ally with a man who has gassed, bombed and otherwise murdered 200,000 of his own citizens. That is a principled stance, without a doubt; but American leaders weren’t so squeamish when we teamed up with “Uncle Joe” Stalin and the Soviet Union to deal with the bigger threat of Herr Hitler and his gang of Nazi gangsters. At the time, Uncle Joe had just finished liquidating about 20,000,000 of his countrymen in purges, gulags and through forced famines. But America couldn’t stand back and let Germany dominate Europe, any more than we can stand back and let ISIS dominate Mesopotamia and the Levant.

All the alternatives are bad ones. Pick your poison.

President Obama visited the United Nations in New York today for a summit of world leaders. When he addressed the assembled gathering, he spoke eloquently and forcefully about the need to stand up to evil, and he promised that America could be counted upon to do what was necessary to destroy it. President Obama has always been a master speaker, but he seemed to speak with greater conviction than he has in the past: as if he has finally come to accept that his Presidency is and can only be about cleaning up the disastrous legacy of the Bush-Cheney era. He is reconciled to the fact, and determined finally to act in a decisive manner. It is ironic that Mr. Obama made this speech at the United Nations, considering that he has delivered what might prove to be the coup de grace to the 69 year old institution.

The Death of the United Nations

Mr. Obama campaigned in 2008 on a platform denouncing the unilateralism of President Bush, and the disdain of Republicans for international institutions and norms. He promised to set America back on course, renewing the strained friendships with traditional allies, and resetting relations with nations that had begun to grow hostile, especially Russia. He has been only partially successful: we are on better terms with most of our traditional allies (though not all), but the “reset” failed completely. That failure was perhaps inevitable: Russian and Chinese foreign policies respond to large, impersonal factors more than to the overtures of the American President.

What is more surprising and more disappointing is how little effort the President has made to reinforce and rebuild the strained fabric of international law and international institutions, the bedrock of which is the United Nations. This institution has been in a long-run decline, increasingly marginalized and irrelevant. There was a time when a U.N. Security Council resolution carried real weight and it was not so long ago: President HW Bush was adamant in the need for a UN resolution supporting US action in the first Gulf War and that was only 23 years ago.

Since then, the institution has been serially abused, and the leading culprit has been the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, it was a Democratic President who started us down the slippery slope[3]: Bill Clinton failed to get UN support for intervention in the Yugoslav civil war because the Russians threatened to use their veto. Finally, President Clinton looked to NATO for political cover and sent the bombers in anyway. That was a hugely unfortunate precedent on any number of levels:

  • NATO is a military alliance, not a body of international governance; and no participant of the Yugoslav civil war was a member of NATO, which would have at least provided a casus foederis[4] for intervention. Therefore, NATO had no more authority than my Fantasy Football League to authorize an attack against a sovereign state that had not attacked us or our allies;
  • The air campaign against Yugoslavia was subsequently justified by the “right of intervention” in the case of the most extreme crimes against humanity: ethnic cleansing and genocide. While the UN had certainly authorized military interventions in the past for humanitarian reasons, these had been very specific resolutions, not the enunciation of a general right. The Russians took note and have gleefully turned the tables on the West, using the “right of intervention” as a justification for their military browbeating of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014, citing unspecified crimes against humanity directed at ethnic Russians.

President W Bush took the next step. He tried and failed to get UN backing for his invasion of Iraq; he tried and failed to get NATO backing. He invaded anyway, now citing only the imminent threat of Iraqi WMD’s to US national security. Legally, it is beside the point that no WMD’s were found in Iraq, though if US troops had discovered a concealed nuclear bomb program history might have turned out very differently than it did. The main point is that President Bush simply brushed the UN aside when it proved to be an inconvenience to his plans. In the arrogance of power, the President and his advisors – if you want to call them that – failed to consider the long-term implications of these violations of international laws and international norms. The Russians took notice, but stayed quiet.


President Obama has continued this trend, despite his election year rhetoric against the unilateral use of force: the 2011 Libyan air campaign was backed by a UN Security Resolution 1973[5], but what actually occurred went far beyond the “establishment of a no fly zone over Libya”. NATO aircraft not only patrolled Libyan airspace and engaged in anti-aircraft suppression, they launched ground attack missions wholly unrelated to anti-aircraft suppression. There were also allegations that Western Special Forces were operating with the rebel forces and acting as forward observers directing the coalition air strikes against government forces, something that was expressly forbidden in the United Nations resolution. Although President Obama was reluctant in joining the coalition against Libya, doing so only when it was apparent that our NATO partners were utterly incapable of executing the mission successfully on their own, that did not stop him from utterly ignoring Congress and the War Powers Resolution[6], nor of acquiescing to the violation of the UNSC Resolution.

It is – or it should be – extraordinarily disturbing that a large number of military interventions and violations of national sovereignty since 2001 have occurred without even a nod to the UN Security Council, which is the only international body with the legal power to authorize such action.


It seems strange that so “multi-lateralist” a President should have made no effort to get a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the Islamic State. American diplomatic efforts have secured a SC resolution regarding foreign fighters for ISIS: is it really likely that a use of force resolution would have been vetoed? Not by Russia and China, who are delighted to have the Americans once again involved in an interminable Middle Eastern quagmire. The inevitable conclusion is getting the UN’s green light simply wasn’t worth the minimal bother.

But the existence of a strong and respected United Nations is not a “minimal bother”, whatever the neo-conservatives might say. Their main complaint is that the UN restrained the scope of US actions; but it restrained everyone else too! That is the whole point of a mutually agreed upon international framework: it raises the costs of unilateral action and discourages rogue states from, well, going rogue. It is messy, it is time-consuming, and it is frustrating: yes. But so is democracy; that’s why checks and balances exist.

Raising the costs of unilateralism and military adventurism is important, because it means states feel more secure and are willing to spend less on armaments. That creates a virtuous circle whereby less spending on defense leads to less desire and capacity for adventurism. It means the global policeman can be called less often, rather than spending years and trillions of dollars putting out brush fires in a more inflammable world. It is not pacifist idealism: it is Bismarckian realpolitik.

The alternative to a functioning U.N. is a Hobbesian world where the strong do what they like and the weak suffer what they must. It is a world where human rights are rolled back to a core of liberal democratic nations, which are themselves under siege by autocracies of every stripe. It is a breeding ground for Hitler’s, Mussolini’s and Togo’s of the future. Just as the League of Nations fell into disrepute for its failure to stand up to Japanese and Italian militarism in the early 1930’s, the same fate could befall the United Nations for failing to stand up to the unilateralism and the abuse of an undefined and dangerous “responsibility to protect”. The UN will not disappear: it generates too many cushy bureaucratic jobs for world elites who want to live in New York and would have nowhere else to go. But it might become as irrelevant as its predecessor. No need to remind anyone of what followed hard on the heels of the League’s disappearance.

league of nations

Just to be clear: I’m not necessarily against the campaign against ISIS. But I believe that it can only be justified by a Security Council resolution and the appropriate authorization by the national legislatures of each participant, authorizing the use of force.

It is up to the United States to stop this trend. It began with us and it must end with us; we must follow the hard road of reestablishing the strict respect for the system of international law which we erected in the first place. That means imposing limits on our actions; but it means we can enforce those limits on others more easily as well. The alternative is to ever increasing defense budgets, military expenditures and casualties as we move closer to the maw of war; not brush wars against regional insurgencies, but great wars against great powers. That is in no one’s interest, least of all our own.


Sources and Notes:

[1] Though ISIS was actually born in Iraq in the wake of the US invasion of that country during the Sunni uprising; they fled to Syria only after the moderate Sunni tribes joined the US-led surge and political rapprochement that succeed, temporarily, in ending the rebellion.

[2] I describe this scenario fully in my article “Out of the Box: Is it Time to Deal with Assad?”, Common Sense, 19 August 2014

[3] One could go back in history and pick out many cases of unilateral interventions prior to President Clinton; but as he was the first President of the post-Cold War world, the failure to reinforce International institutions falls to him.

[4] Casus belli is better known as Latin for “case for war”; but the Romans were very fond of using the casus foederis, or “case for the alliance”, as an equally valid justification for military action. The Romans were always keen to have a justification for going to war, even as they were butchering entire cities, since it would incur the favor of the gods, and going to the aid of an ally or vassal in fulfilment of their holy oaths was the perfect excuse.

[5] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, United Nations Security Council, 17 March 2011

[6] President Obama was also bluntly candid in his explanation for the current campaign against ISIS about his thoughts on the primacy of the legislature in the determination to use force: he dismissed it.

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