Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Unilateralist Nostalgia

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 24, 2012 --  

America's drive for international consensus on Syria does nothing but serve the world's most repressive regimes.

In the months following America's ill-fated invasion of Iraq, comedians had a field day with George W. Bush's threadbare "Coalition of the Willing." Aside from Britain and Poland, international participation in the military adventure was minor at best and in name only at worst. Washington's Capitol Steps musical comedy troupe did a number called "Cameroon" mocking the small, poor, militarily weak African nation's presence in the coalition. Comedian John Stewart gleefully reported the news when Costa Rica -- a nation without an army -- demanded that their country's name be taken off the list.1

The invasion was much derided by left-leaning Americans as unilateralism, in sharp contrast to the respected multilateral United Nations mandate given to the attack on Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, or even the thinly veiled UN-mandated "no fly zone" used to justify NATO air strikes on Libya last year.

Yet recent experience with Syria shows the dark side of seeking multilateralism with a mindless devotion to international consensus. As the Syrian government has continued to kill its rebellious citizens by the tens of thousands2, authoritarian regimes in Russia and China have blocked every attempt by horrified Western and Arab nations to use the UN to impose sanctions on the murderous government or aid the opposition.

Last week, Russia, joined by China, issued its third security council veto to stop economic sanctions on Syria.3 And without the ability to impose relatively mild sanctions through the UN, there is absolutely no hope of seeking the body's approval for more stringent military measures.

The cynical motives of the Russian and Chinese governments are simple -- they oppose international action to stop government repression, because they want the right to continue repressing their own people as well. And after feeling tricked into accepting the intervention in Libya, Russia has made clear that it will not make the same mistake again.

So the West does nothing. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes speeches and cajoles her Russian and Chinese counterparts to join America in a UN resolution, knowing full well that her sharp words have no hope of changing any minds. She does all of this in the name of multilateralism, as if strong words before the international body were somehow a substitute for even the mildest action.

All of this is fruitless, and Syrians continue to die. The Obama administration's mindless devotion to multilateralist dogma serves nobody but the world's most repressive governments.

Without a doubt, if America were to act unilaterally, there is plenty it could do. It could start by sending serious arms to the opposition -- anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. It could use cruise missiles or drones to try to cut the head off of the regime's morally bankrupt and bloodstained leadership. It could work with Turkey to establish a safe haven for rebels along the border.

Yes, George W. Bush did bad things unilaterally. But that doesn't mean that everything unilateral is necessary bad. What better way for America to regain its moral standing in the world, than by its willingness to take a stand for freedom and human rights when others will not?

With luck, the Syrian people will be able to depose their violently oppressive government without American help. But it would be a shame for America not to show its solidarity in the fight against the forces of evil in Syria. And what if the Syrian people are unable to soon dislodge the regime? It would be a tragedy -- both moral and human -- if America were to sit idly by if Syrian government forces continue to hold power by wholesale slaughter of those who yearn to be free.


1. New York Times, Costa Rica Drops Out of Coalition, September 10, 2004

2. The Guardian, Syrian Death Toll Tops 19,000, Say Activists, July 22, 2012

3. Bloomberg Businessweek, Russian UN Veto Shields Assad As Violence Rages in Syria, July 19, 2012