Obama Falls Into a U.N. Trap
Russia outsmarts the U.S. on Syria. How about a coalition of the willing?
Remember when the United Nations was going to be the new global venue for "collective security"? The place where the Obama Administration's faith in diplomacy and willingness to lead from behind would pay off in world solidarity against dictators and thugs?
So much for that. On Saturday, Russia and China vetoed a U.S.-backed Security Council resolution supporting an Arab League plan to ease Syria's Bashar Assad from power.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice now says she's "disgusted." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the veto "a travesty" and struck a note of unilateralism that would make Dick Cheney proud: "Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future." She added that "Assad must go."
Coalition of the willing, anyone?
The surprise is that the U.S. should be so surprised. Moscow had been signaling for weeks that it would protect its client in Damascus even as Mr. Assad added to his death toll, now at more than 5,000. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has defended Russian arms sales to Syria and ruled out any new U.N. moves. This week he plans a solo "peace mission" to Damascus that looks like a transparent attempt to buy Mr. Assad more time for killing.
This is what happens when a U.S. Administration sees the world as it would like it to be, not the way it is. The White House apparently believed its own spin that last year's Libyan operation signaled a brave new multilateral era. But Russia abstained on that U.N. resolution, and strongman Vladimir Putin raged that he had been duped when NATO used the resolution to claim the authority to oust Moammar Gadhafi. The Libyan mission succeeded after much needless delay only because the U.S. military provided most of the firepower behind a NATO and Arab facade.
Russia doesn't count for much anymore in world affairs, but it does retain its U.N. veto. Mr. Putin has his own domestic upheavals to consider as he seeks to become president again, and he isn't about to set a precedent for U.N. intervention against a bloody-minded ally. Ditto for the Chinese. The American folly is in giving the U.N. any ability to stop an anti-Assad coalition that includes the Turks, all of non-Russian Europe, the U.S. and the Arab world.
Having been humiliated by the Russians, the U.S. could now try a Plan B. One precedent is Kosovo in the 1990s, another case where the Russians tried to block the world from acting. President Clinton ignored the Security Council and led a coalition to stop Slobodan Milosevic's genocide against the Kosovar Albanians.
In Syria today, the Turks, Arabs, Europeans and Americans can arm and fund the opposition on their own and unite to tighten sanctions around Mr. Assad and his cronies. A no-fly zone above Syria also shouldn't be ruled out, especially when the Assad government is doing in Homs and elsewhere what Gadhafi would have done in Benghazi if NATO hadn't intervened.
Americans are preoccupied by domestic issues, but Syria is a good test of President Obama's foreign policy. He has put the credibility of his office on the line by declaring that Syria's tyrant must leave. With each week of Mr. Assad's brutality, the cost in lives and the odds of civil war will continue to rise unless Mr. Obama does more than bow before the false moral authority of the U.N.