Obama’s Secret Weapon?
The rarely used United Nations resolution that might make war possible even if Russia and China vote ‘no’
After a weekend where Pres. Barack Obama stole quiet moments with leaders of the G20 countries and Secretary of State John Kerry held court with Arab leaders, both men headed back to the capital Monday looking to build support for military action against Bashar Al Assad.
Throughout it all the message has been is clear: Beware the precedent, the White House argues. The chemical weapons attack carried out by Assad’s forces was such an abrogation of international law, not to mention moral judgement, that the world “cannot turn a blind eye,” Obama said Saturday. Critics, however, eschew the snap judgement of Obama’s inner circle, noting the debate has lost the important middle ground.
“We’re being told that there are two choices: do nothing or bomb Syria,” Jim McGovern, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, told CNN’s State of the Union. “Clearly there have to be some other choices in between. We ought to explore them.”
Amid the spectrum of alternatives sits an appeal to the United Nations. It’s unpopular, given the anticipated Security Council vetoes by China and Russia, but the U.N. presents Obama with a rare and — largely unknown — opportunity to beat the drums of war even if two permanent members fervently oppose the action. But for the White House to do so means empowering the international community’s voice at the U.N., while simultaneously eroding Washington’s power to control it.
Buried on the barely-read pages of the U.N. Charter, in language unchanged since 1945, sits a little known resolution called “Uniting for Peace.” Basically, it serves as a vote of no confidence in the Security Council.
Here’s how it works: With the vote of seven Security Council members (not all of them need to be permanent), the council can move a topic relating to international peace and security out of their chambers and into an emergency session of the General Assembly. What’s required? Alleging that the Security Council has failed to properly discharge its responsibilities.
It could work for Syria,at least theoretically.
If Russia and China — permanent powers with de facto “veto” power on the council — were to vote “no” on a renewed resolution sponsored by the U.S., the remaining council members could vote to enact Resolution 377, moving the debate, and thus the vote, to the floor of the General Assembly. There, a majority of member states could propose and pass a resolution authorizing military action.
The tactic is exceedingly rare, particularly since the end of the Cold War, but the U.S. has used Resolution 377 before.
After Egypt nationalized the Suez canal in 1956, forces from Britain and France invaded and seized sections of the waterway. Deemed to be an issue of international peace and security, the ensuing conflict was brought before the security council, where both permanent members (Britain and France) vetoed a resolution calling for a ceasefire. The U.S. then convened the General Assembly for an emergency session and an even stronger resolution was passed — Britain and France withdrew within the week.
Later that same year, the U.S. pressured the Soviet Union to cease hostilities in Hungary. Moscow’s veto killed the proposed measures by the council, but the General Assembly was called upon and passed a resolution demanding the USSR halt their obstructionism in Hungary, which it subsequently did.
On the surface, moving the debate on Syria — from the chambers of a few to the floor of the many — makes philosophical sense. According to Obama, Assad’s use of chemical weapons represents an act the world should undoubtedly oppose, so why shouldn’t the world get a vote? After all, the General Assembly is certainly the most “democratic” organ of the United Nations.
Where principle meets practice
But philosophy is often the first casualty of realpolitik and despite its promises, the Obama administration is unlikely to use Resolution 377 for at least two reasons. First: even if they were to endorse such a tactic, there is little hope the General Assembly would vote yes, regardless of the pledged support from Arab allies Sec. Kerry continued to court this weekend.
As Foreign Policy reported last week, Saudi Arabia is not only interested in seeing the end of the Assad regime, but Riyadh might be willing to bankroll the operation and — if the mood is right — press for a General Assembly resolution condemning the use of the chemical weapons that might “provide some cover for military action.”
As a member of the non-aligned movement (NAM), which includes 120 voting U.N. nations, Saudi Arabia would need a majority of NAM votes to make good on that promise. This isn’t an impossible task, but the complex and divergent politics of the member countries will guarantee the outcome is far from certain. And Obama can’t assume responsibility for any more uncertainty on this topic.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, resolution 377 would set a precedent that threatens to render future U.N. vetoes less powerful. For the U.S., which exercises a greater number of vetoes than any other U.N. permanent member, the nefariousness of the Assad regime and the need to exact punishment against it is unlikely to outweigh the political benefits gained through the consistent use of the veto.
“In today’s U.N., the U.S. would never want to set a precedent in using resolution 377— Uniting for Peace,” Michael Ratner, President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based non-profit litigation firm, tells War is Boring.
Ratner would know. In 2004, he argued for the use of Resolution 377 during the run-up to Bush’s war in Iraq, and has been an outspoken opponent of the previous administration. “The U.S. would not want to set an example of going to the General Assembly that could be used against them, one of the many times they choose to use their veto,” he says.
While unlikely, observers would be smart to keep resolution 377 in the back of their minds. After all, Syria has already driven Obama to sacrifice the sweeping powers of the executive on all manners of foreign policy to a gridlocked Congress: a decision that was viewed as part deft (forcing the House of the People to decide whether to take the country to war); and part-dumb: placing the perception of American power and Obama’s own presidential legacy in the hands of politicians who have frustrated many of the White House’s efforts to-date. Anything, it seems, is possible.
Silence as position
But these challenges are as much inherited as they are inherent. With freely available YouTube videos providing the proverbial casus belli, opponents of military action from London to Moscow have forced Obama to atone, perhaps unfairly, for the misgivings of frivolous wars of years past. And certainly, in the case of the U.N. — the institution that George W. Bush avoided because it lacked the sharp teeth of the U.S. military — it’s clear that the organization deserves some of the criticism it’s received.
Failing to act would “give a green light to outrages that will threaten our security and haunt our conscience,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in an interview last week. Assigning blame to China and Russia, Power believes the international body is now “paralyzed” to act in Syria.
While pro-interventionists will note these statements as further reason to avoid the U.N. entirely, the unpopularity of proposed military strikes should also give them pause. Behind the rhetoric of “international norms,” protecting civilians and the indiscriminate menace of chemical weapons, lays a complex set of potential military action. If nothing else, the votes in British parliament and the lack of desire for among Americans for parading into war, illustrates a darker truth: Ours is a world grown tired of the beleaguered (and often self-appointed) policeman —and not just for Russian and Chinese representatives to the UN.
As their country has repeatedly sold war shrouded in “good intentions,” Americans —this time in concert with the rest of the world— have come to fear unintended consequences. And that fear, not the fear of precedent, is what the Obama administration must now combat.
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