RANCHO SANTA FE, Ca., Monday, September 9, 2013 – President Obama is scheduled to do six television interviews as well as to address the Nation to reinforce his call for a “limited military action” against Syria that will “send a strong signal” both to the Assad regime and to the world. He will state that the attack is necessary to establish that the United States stands behind what it says and that it will be to defend “international norms” lest those norms be disregarded. He will be wrong on both counts.
A President’s ill-chosen words during a press conference should not be elevated to the status of speaking for the United States. To err is human, even if you haven’t typically been held accountable by the media or electorate in that regard. The United States is bound by that which it commits to do in writing.
Correspondingly, the United States is a sovereign nation that does not have the responsibility or authority to act on behalf of the world. One would think the President would recall his own description of our country’s past “arrogance” and would err on the side of avoiding it. To suggest that the United States should supplant the United Nations with respect to the enforcement of “international norms” would seem to touch upon other terms he used in that speech such as “dismissive” and “derisive.”
The issue can and should be resolved by the United Nations rather than the United States.
First among The Purposes of the United Nations is: “To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.” (Chapter I, Article 1, Section 1.)
Therefore, it is the U.N.’s charter to determine and enforce “international norms.”
Chapter I, Article 2 continues: “The Organization and its Members, in pursuit of the Purposes stated in Article 1, shall act in accordance with the following Principles. (1)The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members. (2) All Members, in order to ensure to all of them the rights and benefits resulting from membership, shall fulfill in good faith the obligations assumed by them in accordance with the present Charter. (3) All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. (4) All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”
Therefore, as a Member, the United States has agreed to be bound by the U.N. Charter.
The Articles of Chapters VI and VII provide the structure within which negotiated resolutions and military intervention may be pursued. They specify a rational approach of escalation that is directed at preserving world peace while enforcing “international norms.” Chapter VII, Article 51 further provides that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence (sic) if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations.”
Therefore, there is a process in place by which the international community may pursue enforcement of its “norms” unless a Member nation is compelled to take action to defend itself.
During a recent Q&A, President Obama said, “I put this (the limited military action against Syria) before Congress because I could not honestly claim that … (chemical weapons) posed an imminent direct threat to the United States… I could not say that it was immediately, directly going to affect our allies.” This not only rules out an Article 51 exception from a U.N. perspective but also any reasonable interpretation of an application of the War Powers Act under U.S. law.
So, other than ego, why is the President ignoring international agreements and domestic law to pursue an attack on Syria?
One legitimate reason may be the veto power of the five permanent Members of the U.N. Security Council. These Members include China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Each of these countries possessed the ability to block any resolution that must be approved by the Security Council before it can be considered by the General Assembly. It is commonly believed that China and Russia will block any resolution presented to the Security Council with regard to consideration of military action against Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Additionally, Syria is one of only five Members that have failed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (with Angola, Egypt, North Korea, and South Sudan being the other Members that have not signed, while Burma and Israel have signed but not ratified the CWC). Had Syria signed and ratified the CWC, any Security Council resolution would have had a far higher probability of overcoming the threat of veto.
Does that mean that the United States must “go it alone” and use conventional weapons to kill innocent people to preserve the moral high ground of international norms? Of course not.
The U.N. has the ability to amend its Charter, and perhaps this is the time to pressure it to do so. As a great orator and the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama certainly has the gravitas to nearly command such change if only someone would write the speech for him. In that regard, here is the approach he could pursue.
In 2001, the United Nations entered into a cooperative relationship agreement with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is charged with the administration of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Similarly, the U.N. has pursued initiatives to proscribe other weapons of mass destruction including biological and nuclear weapons. The U.N. also has the ability to amend its Charter.
Why not propose that the U.N. amend its Charter as follows?
Mandate that all Members be required to sign, ratify, and comply with any international conventions that are adopted with respect to weapons of mass destruction as a condition of membership. (Human rights issues could be addressed at a later date.)
Failure to sign, ratify, and comply with such conventions would lead to a suspension of rights and protections under the U.N. Charter that may otherwise be afforded a Member.
An ongoing failure to sign, ratify, and comply with such conventions may lead to an expulsion from the U.N.
Vetoes afforded to the five permanent Members of the Security Council would be null and void with respect to any votes taken with respect to resolutions specifically addressing alleged violations involving Chapters VI and VII by non-Members or suspended Members.
This would allow the international community to establish, monitor, and enforce its “norms” without unduly burdening a nation like the United States with having to serve as the world’s arbiter and police force. It would also preclude a major power from acting unilaterally in the interpretation and enforcement of such norms.
This approach would reinforce the Charter of the United Nations, which the organization occasionally appears to have forgotten. It would eliminate the inevitable impasse between certain Members of the Security Council in this single area that has the potential to threaten mankind. Furthermore, it would eliminate the sense of protection certain nations have (such as Syria) that emboldens them to ignore international norms without fear of reprisal (i.e., because the veto power of allies that might reside on the Security Council would not be applicable).
If the United Nations ignores the request for amendment, it should be privately reminded that the United States has graciously hosted the U.N. since its inception and funds about 22% and 27% of its general and peacekeeping budgets, respectively. Diplomatically speaking, the current headquarters would make an excellent museum to the memory of the League of Nations … and the United Nations as well.
Open Letter to the President
On September 6, 2013, you stated the following at your press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia: “My military assured me that we could act today, tomorrow, a month from now, that we could do so proportionally, but meaningfully.” Then, Mr. President, please take the time to pursue every available alternative you have before you select the one that inherently will take the lives of those who did not order the use of chemical weapons or execute such orders. Those individuals are human beings, not political pawns.
Have other Presidents acted without international approval? Yes. One need look no further than President Bush in Iraq or President Clinton in Kosovo. Should you rely on such precedents when you have so vigorously condemned them in the past? Should that be the standard to which you hold yourself? We pray that your answer is, “No.”
When you first ran for President of the United States, you offered “Hope and Change” and the entire world embraced it.
To quote the Norwegian Nobel Committee, you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for your “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples … (you) as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms (and, presumably, chemical weapons as well) has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.”
The Committee continued: “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as (you) captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. (Your) diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population. For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which (you are) now the world’s leading spokesman. The Committee endorses (your) appeal that ‘Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.’”
We hope the Committee was correct in its assessment of your emphasis on the role of the United Nations. We also hope you meant what you said in the final quote that the Nobel Committee chose to include in its proclamation. Please do not surrender to the temptation to pursue a more readily available option in lieu of securing the more difficult one: “a global response to global challenges,” to use your words.
We live in a world in which other cultures may not respond to “shock and awe” as we might expect. We cannot control their response, nor can we control against whom it might be directed. If you are uncertain of the risks to which we may be exposed by your final decision, please proceed with the utmost caution.
We also know that complex issues like these can be challenging. If you need inspiration, please remember your Oath of Office; the second half of which requires you to use your best efforts to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Before you make your final decision, consider how it might help us “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” If you choose the solution that best serves those purposes, you will have chosen wisely, and we will be less fearful of the consequences.
The America People
T.J. O’Hara is an internationally recognized author, speaker, and strategic consultant in the private and public sectors. In 2012, he emerged as the leading independent candidate for the Office of President of the United States and the first nominee of the Whig Party in over 150 years.
This article first appeared in T.J. O’Hara’s recurring column, A Civil Assessment, in the Communities section of The Washington Times.