Archive for category United Nations
Fresh off a diplomatic victory concerning Syria, the United States may be on the verge of making significant headway in solving the most vexing foreign policy problem of the last 34 years – what to do about Iran? From the 1979 hostage crisis to near war over Iran’s alleged nuclear program, the ability of Iran’s clerics to plot a Machiavellian course to expand regional power has given American policy makers headaches. President Obama, whose foreign policy successes are growing, may have another victory in reach. If so, this will go further in turning around the narrative on Syria. Rather than being outplayed by Putin, Obama may have one of the most significant diplomatic victories since the end of the Cold War.
Many people were surprised when Hassan Rouhani won the June 2013 Presidential election in Iran. A moderate, he espoused closer relations with the West, more civil liberties and economic reform. Gone are the days of bombast from former President Ahmadinejad. No more talk about wiping Israel off the map; instead, Rouhani went to the United Nations to proclaim that no state should have nuclear weapons, and there was no room in Iran for nuclear arms. This clears the way for a deal to end the tense stand off that’s been brewing for over a decade about Iran’s alleged arms program.
That election was proof that however powerful the Iranian clerics are, Iran is still an emerging democracy. Rouhani was not the choice of Supreme Leader Khamanei, yet he won narrowly in the first round. If the elections were rigged, he’d have at least fallen short of the 50% to prevent a second round of voting. Moreover, Iran’s clerics realize that they could lose power in a heartbeat if the Iranian people rebelled against their authority. From 1979 to 2004 there was a gradual liberalization of Iranian life allowed by the clerics because they didn’t want to foment dissent.
In 2004 that all changed; conservatives gained a majority for the first time in the Majles (parliament), and conservative Ahmadinejad won the Presidency. It appeared Iran had changed course and was on a dangerous anti-western trajectory. In hindsight that may have been a short term boost to the conservatives by anger at the US invasion of Iraq. As that ill fated war fades into history, the Iranians appear to be moving again towards becoming a more liberal Islamic Republic.
So what next?
With high level talks between Secretary of State Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif already underway at the United Nations Security Council, the path will be a gradual easing of tensions alongside trust building agreements that could ultimately yield an agreement for Iran to not only end its nuclear program, but allow inspectors to verify its conclusion. That has not yet happened of course, things could still go south. Still, this is a major breakthrough and there is reason to think it’s the real thing.
If so, it’s a very good thing that the US did not choose to attack Iran back in the heyday of Ahmadinejad’s bombast. He’s gone, Iran’s gradually changing as its large youth population ages into adulthood, and the consequences of going to war with Iran could have been catastrophic. The Pentagon thought so – they war gamed it out, and saw considerable danger in attacking Iran. The hawks on Iran will be proven to have been wrong.
The agreement to force Assad of Syria to give up chemical weapons is also important. Iran saw Russia and the US work together, and recognize that despite rivalry between the two former Cold War foes, both share an interest in not allowing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This is far more effective than a US strike against Syria which would have probably done more to show post-Iraq impotence on the part of the Americans than anything Iran would fear.
Most important, though, is the changes taking place in Iran itself. The country has a population with a strong pro-Western streak, well educated and modern. The youth are demanding change. The same dynamic is taking place in Iran as in the Arab Spring, except Iran already has an emerging democracy and more liberal population. It’s clerical class has proven less extremist than pragmatic.
In short, a thaw in the tension with Iran may be a sign that Muslim extremism is also on the wane. Iran is a model of an Islamic Republic, mixing religion and democracy. A stable Iran could help the Iraqis get their democracy back on track, and ultimately be extremely important for the entire region.
We aren’t there yet, but the fruits of Obama’s foreign policy are starting to become evident. He didn’t really deserve the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, but by the time he leaves office the world will likely in much better condition.
Up until a few days ago I was convinced I’d write a blog entry fiercely critical of Obama continuing the abuse of executive power that has been on display since WWII – a President going to war without Congressional approval. To be sure, in legal terms he could have done it according to the provisions of the War Powers Act, though even that would be a murky case.
The Constitution gives the Congress the power to declare war. The War Powers Act of 1973 does allow a President to use force in cases of an emergency and then get approval from Congress. All Presidents since Nixon have claimed the act to be unconstitutional, although only Presidents Reagan (aid to the Contras) and Clinton (Kosovo) have ignored Congressional opposition and thus clearly violated the act. When force is used, the President is required to notify Congress within 48 hours, and then must get approval for action within sixty days. If approval is not given, the President has 30 days to remove the forces.
While over a hundred reports to Congress have been given, in line with what the act requires, only one (President Ford and the Mayaguez incident) involved a direct threat to Americans. In Syria there is no direct threat to the United States.
Practically the War Powers Act has actually strengthened the executive. Once military action is under way, Congress is loathe to revoke it, least it get painted as having undermined America’s military. Still, most Presidents have insisted it is unconstitutional — that as Commander in Chief the President does have the power to use the military, even absent a Congressional declaration of war. This grabbing of power for the Executive branch reached a pinnacle under President George W. Bush, who used 9-11, the Patriot Act, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to amass more executive power without regard to the will of Congress.
Up until a few days ago, most people thought that President Obama would follow in Bush’s footsteps, refuse to involve an especially gridlocked Congress and simply act in an international coalition that he could forge. This would defy the UN, since the Security Council has not approved action (Russia and China at this point would veto it) and to the chagrin of the anti-war activists who supported Obama, make Obama seem not much different than Bush. So much for that Nobel Peace Prize!
Obama still may go that route. But after British Prime Minister Cameron had to withdraw British support for a strike thanks to opposition in Parliament, it appears Obama recognized the need to slow down. That is a very wise decision.
My hope is that this represents a move away from amassing more power to the Executive and is setting a precedent. Going to war without Congressional approval (absent an emergency) is simply wrong. It violates both the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and makes fiascoes more likely. Yet even if the President isn’t ready to embrace a (for me to be welcomed) weakening of the Presidency, it makes sense. Going to Syria in even a limited role is controversial. To do so with minimal international and domestic support risks his Presidency.
Moreover, the country needs a true debate about the role of the United States foreign policy. America and the world are fundamentally different in 2013 than just ten years ago. After Iraq and Afghanistan there is real question about how eager the US should be to use military power. The Republican party has a new breed of isolationists, still a minority in the party, but gaining clout. Many Democrats (and some Republicans) are convinced we need to learn the hard lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, with 90% of all casualties of military action being civilian these days, would a limited strike make a difference? Would it be moral?
This debate – what to do about Syria – should take place both at home and abroad. There are big issues at stake. Can the UN act – is it possible for Russia and China to find a way to work with NATO and other states to support norms that trump sovereignty? What kind of role do Americans want their country to play in this new world where the US is no longer as dominant, and traditional military power seems unlikely to yield desired political results?
And though Syrians suffer daily from the acts of their own regime, would American action only make things worse? Would Assad use international controversy to increase his terror? If Obama acts without domestic support, would this weaken the United States on the world stage? Yes, Syrian civilians are suffering, and John McCain makes a good point when he says the world should not tolerate that and should help. But going in with guns blazing and no international consensus may do more harm than good.
The issues in play here go far beyond just the Syrian case and cut to the core of how world politics is changing. This is a time both at home and abroad for real reflection and discussion – patience rather than imprudence.
Paranoia on the right about the United Nations is nearing the point of clinical insanity. For some reason the far right sees the United Nations as a dangerous evil organization bent on implementing some kind of internationalist/socialist world order. This gives rise to delusional fantasies.
This week the US Senate sought to ratify the UN Treaty on Disabilities, a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It failed by a vote of 61-38. 61 voted “yes,” but in the Senate you need 2/3 of the vote to ratify. Former Presidential candidate Rick Santorum praised the vote, stating that the treaty would have given the UN power to intervene in the choices parents make about their handicapped children.
The same kind of hysteria made the Senate unable to ratify the Rights of the Child Convention. The US is joined by only Somalia and South Sudan in rejecting this effort to support children. The US refused because a right wing group called “Focus on the Family” said that the convention would prevent parents from using corporal punishment (spanking) on their misbehaving kids. That’s absurd, but somehow they convinced the Senate not to act.
Imagine a scene. The UN pulls up with some jeeps and a black helicopter sweeping down to a suburban house. Across the street a neighbor looks out the window, “looks like Ralph spanked his boy again.” This is a level of paranoia so bizarrely irrational that it defies explanation!
The UN can’t do any of that. These treaties have no enforcement except through the UN Security Council. The US has a veto on the Security Council. And earth to self-centered American nationalists: the treaties aren’t aimed at us! The treaties are aimed at trying to counter problems in third world states where children and disabled people don’t have the benefits they receive here. UN bureaucrats don’t care how you are going to deal with your disabled child or whether or not you spank your kids!
When work was done to create an International Criminal Court (ICC) in order to make it easier to go after brutal war lords who get away with atrocities in third world conflicts, the US actively sought to fight that court’s very existence. Rather than recognizing its use in dealing with groups like the brutal LRA in Uganda or the Janjaweed in Darfur, they were scared that the ICC might arrest Americans and accuse them of atrocities. They even passed a law in 2002 saying the US could invade the Netherlands to rescue any Americans arrested by the ICC!
Of course, there is no such danger. Not only is the scope of the ICC limited, but it only gets involved if a state can’t or won’t prosecute its own war criminals. The US military justice system is one of the most advanced in the world, and it recognizes as crimes the same ones that the ICC deals with.
The insanity continues.
After his experience in Rwanda and his struggle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Romeo Dallaire has become involved in effort to end the practice of using children as soldiers in war. Dallaire had been UN force commander in Rwanda as the 1994 genocide took place. He had only 240 troops and pleaded with the UN to at least send supplies so he could feed the people he was protecting. He was ignored. He has since become an activist against the ravages of conflict in Africa.
One problem he notes is the ease in which small arms flow into combat zones from elsewhere, allowing war lords and other nefarious figures to easily get the means to create child armies. He called on the UN to work to limit small arms trade, and now they are working on a UN Small Arms Treaty, designed specifically to make it harder to arm combatants in places like sub-Saharan Africa.
Alas in the US the reaction is predictable. The UN is going to come for our guns! The treaty will make it illegal to sell small arms, the treaty will undermine the Second Amendment!
*Eyes rolling* Sigh. No, the UN won’t come for your guns — remember, the UN has no army and can only enforce international law through a Security Council Resolution. The US can veto those. The Supreme Court has ruled that any treaty that violates the constitution is invalid. No treaty can undermine the constitution.
So while the US claims to want to do what it can to prevent children being used as soldiers, support individual rights in the third world, and bring war criminals to justice, an insane paranoia about an organization utterly impotent to do anything against the US prevents the Senate from ratifying needed treaties.
The world is in transformation and only by recognizing our interdependence and need to cooperate across borders can we solve the problems ahead. A paranoid inward looking irrational nationalism hurts both us and the rest of the world. The fantasized conspiracies aren’t there, but the problems we need to solve are real.