As Obama prepares for U.N. speech, experts say his stance toward group fits U.S. pattern


President Obama addressed the 65th session of the U.N. General Assembly in 2010. He is scheduled to give his fifth speech to the body on Tuesday. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)
September 22, 2013

As President Obama weighed his options last month in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he made clear that he was prepared to bypass the United Nations on the way to war.

He will return to the United Nations this week to deliver his fifth annual speech to the General Assembly, having clinched a deal that places the world’s leading diplomatic organization squarely at the center of efforts to secure President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal.

Obama, who will arrive in New York on Monday and address the General Assembly on Tuesday, is expected to argue that Syria has only a limited opportunity to abide by its agreement to turn over its chemical weapons. The U.N. Security Council is key to that process, and U.S. officials hope that it will quickly pass a resolution to legally bind Syria to its commitments.

Critics have described Obama’s diplomatic efforts on Syria as topsy-turvy. The president’s address, they note, will come just a couple of weeks after his administration brushed aside international calls for American officials to wait for the results of a U.N. investigation of the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

But experts say Obama’s approach has been consistent with that of his predecessors, many of whom extolled the United Nations in theory while treating it with ambivalence in practice.

Syria

How the intelligence stacks up

“President Obama is acting in a way that is typical of U.S. presidents,” said Edward Luck, the dean of the School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. “I think it has been the norm for the United States to look for other options, and if other options don’t work, then they go back to the United Nations.”

In the case of Syria, Obama faced the strong possibility that Congress would reject his appeal for military action, as a broad swath of Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns about the plan. Instead, an agreement reached by U.S. and Russian officials meeting in Geneva just over a week ago has provided the administration with a diplomatic escape hatch.

The plan has also offered Obama an opportunity to achieve a goal that U.S. airstrikes could not: the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The deal has been criticized as an act of betrayal by many in the Syrian opposition and some of their foreign backers. But it has been received with relief by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and foreign leaders who feared the consequences of military action without U.N. authorization.

At the same time, the agreement has set the stage for months, if not years, of potentially contentious squabbling between the United States and Russia over ensuring that Syria complies and gives up its weapons.

Under the pact, Syria must turn over its chemical weapons by the middle of 2014. But nonproliferation experts say that schedule is unlikely to be met without the threat of force compelling Assad’s government to cooperate.

“The threat of military action to enforce compliance is critical,” said Amy E. Smithson, an expert on biological and chemical weapons at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “Otherwise, Assad will continue to play right out of Saddam Hussein’s playbook of hindering the inspectors to try to hide weapons and resources to resurrect his program.”

The United States and Russia remain locked in negotiations over a U.N. Security Council resolution on the plan for Syria’s disarmament. Russia has made clear that it would not support a resolution that threatened Syria with military force if it did not meet its commitment. Russia’s foreign minister on Sunday accused the United States of threatening to ditch the talks if Moscow doesn’t go along. “Our American partners are starting to blackmail us,” Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with Russia’s Channel One. He said Russia would be prepared to send military observers to Damascus in support of U.N. efforts to disarm Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.

The United States has largely conceded that a U.N.-backed threat of force is unachievable, but top American officials insist that Obama reserves the right to use force.

In a briefing to preview Obama’s trip to the United Nations, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Friday that “our belief is that there should be a U.N. Security Council resolution, and that that is necessary to ensure that there’s a verifiable process and that there are consequences that are enforced upon the Assad regime should they fail to comply.”

Both Democratic and Republican presidents have long bridled at the constraints imposed by the U.N. Charter, which allows the use of force only in self-defense or with the approval of the Security Council. President Bill Clinton bypassed the Security Council in leading a NATO air war against Serbia over Kosovo. President George W. Bush dismissed the council as irrelevant when he authorized an invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

In his first address to the General Assembly, Obama sought to mark a departure from his predecessor, saying that he wanted to pursue “a new era of engagement with the world.” But he held few illusions about the organization’s ability to solve the world’s most intractable problems, saying the United Nations too often serves as “a forum for sowing discord” and “a venue for playing politics and exploiting grievances rather than solving problems.”

In his first term, Obama turned to the United Nations to strengthen sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and to authorize a NATO-led military operation in Libya. But the president has also shown himself to be every bit as frustrated by the organization’s cumbersome procedures, and its nagging demand for consensus, as his predecessors.

After Russia and China blocked several attempts to pass a resolution on Syria, U.S. officials denounced the Security Council as an impediment to action and deemed the efforts of U.N. chemical weapons inspectors largely irrelevant.

“The Security Council the world needs to deal with this crisis is not the Security Council we have,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said this month.

But like his predecessors, Obama now finds himself returning to the United Nations to argue before a community of nations.

“It’s the big kid syndrome; you don’t want to be tied down,” said Michael Doyle, a former U.N. official and a Columbia University professor of international affairs, law and political science. “We still operate on the view that Washington is the world’s capital. So when do we go to the U.N.? When we’ve stubbed our toe; when plans have not worked out the way we have anticipated.”

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