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Notebook, 4 September 2013: American Credibility? That Ship has Already Sailed


The U.S.S. American Credibility has foundered.

As I watched the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations pass the Menendez-Corker Syria Resolution (in which Senator Ed Markey had the courage to vote “present”), I was overtaken with a terrible sense of foreboding. By any standard of international law, this act is illegal. We are not under attack ourselves, not engaging in collective defense nor are we operating under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council – the only legally recognized justifications for using military force. I have also been watching how we got ourselves into this situation for quite some time now, and while people seem to focus on Iraq, the real reason we are about to enforce one international norm by violating another stems from our intervention in Libya.

We all recognize that Russia and China stand in the way of a resolution, but this wasn’t always the case. In March of 2011, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was adamant that any outside interference in the struggle going on in Libya was bound to fail, saying on 7 March, “we don’t see how any form of external intervention could possibly solve the Libyan crisis, especially if it were military in nature. Libyans need to solve their own problems.” Ten days later, in what I still feel is a stunning feat of diplomacy, Russia and China acquiesced to wishes of the U.S., British and French, whose diplomatic accomplishment was announced by the official United Nations headline which read, “Security Council Approves ‘No-Fly Zone’ over Libya, Authorizing ‘All Necessary Measures’ to Protect Civilians, by Vote of 10 in Favour with 5 Abstentions.”

Let’s not understate the importance of this moment. After tremendous pressure from Washington, London and Paris, Russia and other skeptical Security Council members were willing to give the West the chance to conduct a limited military intervention. The sovereignty caucus in the UN gave Paris, London and Washington a chance to do some good and to demonstrate they were willing to be honest international actors. However, on 14 April, they got a slap in the face when the oped co-authored by Sarkozy, Cameron and Obama was published. Regardless of Gadhafi’s behavior, authority to remove him from office was not granted by the resolution and is in itself a violation international norms. (For good reason. In every corner of the globe, the Soviet Union and the United States went to great lengths to install puppets in any country they could get away with it, which almost always wound up as nasty repressive regimes. I would suggest that the memories of this in Chile, Iran and Vietnam, to name just a few, are a lot sharper on this than ours.) However, that op-ed also demonstrated that its authors were more than willing to deliberately deceive the Security Council as well as the international community, and this is what has come back to haunt us. By the spring of 2012, numerous serious efforts to pass a similar resolution in the Security Council regarding the crisis in Syria were quite naturally blocked by Russia and China. It is so easy for Americans to criticize the United Nations as spineless or useless or any of the other epithets used to describe it, but the fact remains that the system was abused and nobody can blame the Security Council for recognizing that they were betrayed.

They were. Had Washington, London and Paris had played by the rules, it would have been much more possible to get a resolution on Syria two years ago. I think we could have – long before nerve gas would have come anywhere near being an issue.

Let that sink in.

So while undermining both international law and norms to do so, we are now headed into another mess, which won’t end well. We have only to look at Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Libya to be fairly certain of this. All of which Washington now demands we ignore. Call it “armchair isolationism” if you will, it nonetheless remains the truth. Today it was made crystal clear that neither Congress nor the administration have learned much from their misdeeds and mistakes, much less admit and take responsibility for them. They are now rather in the process of doubling down.

I don’t know how much we can do for Syrians right now, but I feel very strongly that much tragedy could have been avoided had we acted two years ago. Moreover, I don’t know where the next crisis will erupt but we can be sure one will come, probably sooner rather than later, and people will die needlessly because Western leaders, for whatever reason, refused at one critical juncture to act lawfully and fulfill their international obligations in good faith.

Photo Vernon Swanepoel released under a Creative Commons license.

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