How Useful Is The UN?


A reader writes:

Like you, I’m against military action in Syria. I work in the human rights field, so the ongoing bloodshed in Syria tears me up on a daily basis (or it would, had I not become numb to it long ago). But what you wrote is disingenuous:

The only true disincentive for use of chemical weapons is for the UN to achieve a consensus on that fact and initiate collective action involving all members of the Security Council. And yet Obama has explicitly ruled that out.

We’ve been trying to get the Security Council to act for two years now. There have been several attempts to pass resolutions referring the situation to the ICC, and lately to authorize an intervention, but they’ve been stopped each time by Russia and China. Even the mildest statements of condemnation have been blocked or watered down. So it’s not as though Obama could have gone to the UN but refused it out of hand. He has simply accepted that the Security Council will not be able to reach a consensus on any action he might suggest.

He shouldn’t. He should keep trying. And he has the perfect UN ambassador for it. Another reader:

“The UN to achieve a consensus”? Do you mean to say that we should get all 15 members of the council to agree and contribute to military force in launching a low-risk punitive strike? Including Rwanda, Luxembourg, Togo, and Guatemala? Good luck with that shit.

A few more readers drill down on the issue:

Stop pretending the issue here is that Obama needs to rely more on the United Nations.

The UN does a bunch of great stuff, but at the end of the day, it’s made up of actors representing all the countries of the world, the vast majority of which are incredibly selfish and many of which are flat-out evil. The idea that the United States should not act unless Russia gives us the OK, or unless we cobble together forces from random African or Central American countries with no military power, is bullshit. And it’s a particularly ironic critique, given that Bush checked all these boxes, sought UN approval, assembled a coalition … and Iraq was still a disaster.

There are many reasons to avoid getting drawn into this, but needing the approval of  disjointed, morally empty body like the United Nations sure as hell is not one of them. I would hope Obama, Clinton, Bush – whoever – can and would act in the best interests of the country without having to seek Vladimir Putin’s disgusting approval.


I’m afraid I’m with your dissenters on this one. I just don’t see how the use of chemical weapons against civilians can simply be allowed to go unchallenged by the world community. I’d dearly love to see the UN take decisive action, but I don’t see the Security Council accomplishing anything. I don’t subscribe to the view that Obama simply decided to ignore the UN. He realizes the reality of Russian intransigence. Sadly, if Putin were a more reasonable man, I think it’s possible that the US and Russia might be able to work together and use the threat of US military action to drive Assad to a Russia-brokered negotiating table. Which seems like the only possible long-term solution.

Perhaps a bigger issue for me is yet one more example of UN paralysis. If the atrocity of chemical attacks on civilians cannot elicit a UN response, what’s the point?  The UN seems to be devolving into a charitable aid organization with no ability to hold accountable those who violate basic human rights (yes, I realize they also failed in this regard during the Bush-Cheney years).

You used the argument that if this was simply about the principle that the use of these weapons should never go unpunished, Obama should have acted months ago. But surely the president’s decision to hold off until now simply reflects his reluctance to resort to military action, which is why he was elected.

Let me turn this around and present you with the same dilemma. For Obama, the scale of the recent attack has clearly changed his calculus. You disagree with his math. Is there any point at which you believe that intervention would be warranted? What if Assad gassed an entire city? Part of Obama’s reasoning must be the real fear that a much larger chemical attack is possible if the Syrian rebels were to make further progress.

There is no point at which I think it would be wise to intervene unilaterally. If Assad were to up the ante even further, the pressure should not be on the US but on Russia and China. If a UN sanctioned intervention is to occur, it will need such an appalling event to galvanize it. But it is emphatically not the responsibility of the United States to be the United Nations for the UN. It’s a mug’s game. It’s bankrupting us, and only isolates us even further in the world. We have to cut this impulse to hold ourselves responsible for everything evil in the world. We are not. We need to hand this disaster to Putin – and let the Jihadists target him for their mass murder, not us.

(Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, on November 21, 2012. By Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty Images)