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September 3, 2013

Emperor Bartlet: The Bartlet Administration’s Record on War and Congress


Sometimes you just have an idea and you need to write it. This is the result of one of those times. I know it doesn’t really fit my normal material, but it needed a home and what’s a blog for if not to host pieces of yours? Enjoy.

P.S. There are spoilers for all seven seasons here, but I don’t know why you’d be reading something this nerdy if you haven’t already seen every episode of the West Wing multiple times by now.

On Saturday, President Barack Obama announced to the surprise of many that he would be seeking Congress’ approval before striking out against the Syrian government in response to last week’s alleged chemical weapons attack that killed more than 1,000 civilians. The determination clearly draws attention to many unfavorable comparisons to the first president of the 21st century — a man whose lack of strategy and disdain for exit plans led the U.S. into several costly, and likely illegal, wars: Josiah Bartlet.

While many have heralded “The West Wing” as having the liberal ideal of a President as its lead, one prone to speeches and high-minded rhetoric that were a welcome relief for progressives in the time of the Bush administration, his record on foreign-policy is spotty at best. At worst, it can be called disastrous and a profound overreach against the laws of the country and international community far more severe than those Obama has been accused of pondering in his Syria response.

Start by looking at the Season 4 crisis in Equatorial Kundu. Mentioned only once before two seasons prior, Kundu is apparently a small, AIDS-ravaged stereotype of an African country, whose president was shown to be a noble figure killed at the hands of the military. When the country reappears, the citizens are hacking away at each other along ethnic lines, until Barlet decides to send in the Marines to stop the killing. Kundu was clearly meant to be a parallel to the 1994 Rwandan genocide and Bartlet’s actions a fantasy-version of what would have happened if President Bill Clinton had actually intervened to stop it.

What “The West Wing” never answers, however, is just what happened after the Marines were sent in. We can assume the killing stopped but how long were American soldiers on the ground there for? What was Bartlet’s indicator that it was safe to have them pull out? New elections? A negotiated peace deal?

And under what authority did he even send troops in in the first place? Under the War Powers Resolution, Congress attempted to rein in the executive overreach seen in the Nixon years to only having the authority to act within a window of 90 days without Congressional approval. The showrunners of “The West Wing” have stated that it’s clearly an alternate universe, but one where the last President to line up with history was Richard Nixon, the very man who had the War Powers Resolution passed over his veto. So by that logic, the War Powers Resolution should be in effect
during Bartlet’s two terms.

It’s also unclear that Bartlet ever consulted Congress as required under the law, with the body never mentioned except in the context of preparing the Inaugural Address that will introduce the Bartlet Doctrine. Obama’s national security team has spent hours briefing Congress in both classified and unclassified sessions, something it’s not apparent Bartlet sent National Security Advisor Nancy McNally or Secretary of Defense Hutchinson to do. Instead, the Marines are never mentioned again.

Then there’s Bartlet’s foray into the Middle East. In Season Six, Bartlet — somehow — manages to negotiate a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, on the condition that the U.S. play peacekeeper to the agreement. Without a word to Congress, Bartlet commit thousands of American soldiers to an open-ended engagement in the Levant. Surely that qualifies as “introducing United States Armed Forces into hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances” as the War Power Resolution clearly states. Instead, Congress is only brought into the story to discuss the funding of the mission, not the White House sending a draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force to the Hill as Obama has done.

And then there’s the granddaddy of all of Bartlet’s foreign policy faux paus: Kazakhstan. Late in his second term,with the election only weeks away, Bartlet sends in more than 100,000 military personnel to stand between two superpowers’ armies as they advance towards each other in Central Asia. The goal, to get Russia and China to the negotiating table rather than launching World War III between them, is ill-defined in the most generous of terms. It’s depicted accurately as a huge cost to the U.S. taxpayer as well, with no mention of how — or if — Congress was willing to fund it.

What’s more, it’s even specifically referred to as an open-ended engagement, far outside the scope of the War Powers Resolution. When Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Matt Santos asks for Bartlet’s exit strategy in a tense meeting in the Oval Office, the president flatly admits “I don’t have one.”

In none of these cases are the War Powers Resolution’s standards fulfilled. It may be the case that it’s a case of art only showing us what’s true. Since its passage in 1973, the WPR has done nothing to stop any conflict the president has wanted to start. Not Grenada in 1983. Not Kosovo in 1999. And not Libya in 2011. Receiving from Congress the explicit authority to launch a conflict has been the exception more than the norm in the past several decades.

Bartlet clearly wasn’t always this way, though it’s apparent that he had it in him from his early years in office. The very first time we see Bartlet having to consider military action, a strike ironically enough directed at the Syrian government, it’s described as a limited engagement as a punishment for a specific action against the U.S. The “proportionate response” that gives the episode its name is a one-off attack on several Syrian regime pieces of infrastructure. Though he eventually acquiesces to the more limited plan of action, Bartlet for a time considers a much more expansive piece of retribution.

As Obama weighs his options, the decision to go to Congress is a risky one, but one that is definitely legally sound. It also has the political benefit of showing that he is willing to consider Congress’ opinion before moving to use force. For all the trouble the Bartlet Administration got into with Congress, you’d think that the Hill would have hit him harder on this issue. Through his choice to go to the legislative branch for approval, Obama is showing a belief in the system that Bartlet never did.

But it may have just reflected a different time. While Season 3’s “Isaac and Ishmael” wasn’t canon, the writers under Aaron Sorkin had to feel the realities of September 11, 2001 bearing down on them. All of the actions the fictitious Bartlet Adminstration took after that point were written in a post-9/11 world, one where Congress challenging the president on national security was unthinkable. Bartlet also never had the stigma of Iraq hanging over him as Obama does.

Still, if Congress disapproves of the Syrian strikes, which it very well may do, and none of its members are attacked as being “weak on national security,” we may well have left that era — and the Bartlet Administration with it — in the past.

August 28, 2013

No, “The UN” Didn’t Blame Chemical Attacks On Syria’s Rebels

So for the past couple of days, there’s been a bit of a hullaballoo over just what on earth the United States is finally going to do in Syria. All signs — despite Obama insisting that he hasn’t made a decision yet — point towards a set of missile strike against what I can only assume is the Pentagon’s idea of Syria’s soft underbelly with no real follow through.

At what is in my opinion to tangential a point in this discussion is the role that the United Nations is playing in the matter, given its position as arbiter of international peace and security. At least, that it’s role under international law, a fact that the U.S. is not too pleased with given Russia’s continuing efforts to stymy any Security Council-blessed use of force in Syria.

There’s also the matter of the team of U.N. weapons inspectors currently on the ground. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has said that it will take another four days for them to finish their work, with the British now urging the U.S. to not take action until their findings are presented. Syria appears to have had a change of heart now as wants them to stay for a longer period, with U.N. Ambassador Ja’afari claiming that they have handed over evidence that the rebels are at fault for a series of chemical attacks. Ja’afari’s pleas aren’t entirely convincing, though, given the months of negotiations over access Damascus strung out with Turtle Bay, and the extremely limited scope that resulted, but I digress.

In the midst of all of this, there’s been a resurgence of articles — both at various smaller outlets and some as large as Russia Today — making the claim that the United Nations has blamed the rebels for the chemical weapons attacks. This assignment of fault, the argument goes, is being covered up to allow the warmongering Obama administration launch as many missiles as it wants at Damascus because…reasons.

The evidence presented for this belief that the U.N. has ruled against the Syrian rebels? A statement from Carla De Ponte, a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic since September of last year. Launched by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011, the Commission has proved an invaluable tool in gathering the stories of refugees and defetctors of the horrors witnessed within Syria’s borders over the course of the conflict.

When conducting an interview with Swiss television in May, however, Del Ponte made a surprising announcement about the work she and her colleagues were performing:

“Our investigators have been interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals. According to their report of last week, which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. I was a little bit stupefied by the first indications we got … they were about the use of nerve gas by the opposition.”

It’s those comments that had many on the blogosphere declaring that the U.N. official had accidentally told the truth and today claims that the world body has found the government non-culpable for the attack last week. Or if they did carry it out, that means that the international community should also be planning to attack the rebels for carrying out the March attack.

Unfortunately for them, the definitive nature of their story falls apart at several points. First and foremost, at no time does Del Ponte say with absolute certainty that it was the opposition who used chemical weapons against Syrian government forces. In fact, she doesn’t even say for sure that sarin gas or any other weapons were used, only that there were at the time “strong, concrete suspicions.”

Next is the fact that Del Ponte is but one member of a Commission that the U.N. has sponsored. She was not speaking for the Commission during the interview, a role that usually falls solely to the Chair. In this case, that would be Paulo Pinherio — who did not at any time confirm Del Ponte’s statement. And she certainly wasn’t speaking for the United Nations system as a whole.

In fact, in the days after her interview, the commission put out a press release walking back the majority of her points:

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic wishes to clarify that it has not reached conclusive findings as to the use of chemical weapons in Syria by any parties to the conflict. As a result, the Commission is not in a position to comment on teh allegations at this time.

The Chair of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Sergio Pinherio, reminds all parties to the conflict that the use of chemical weapons is prohibited in all circumstances under customary international humanitarian law.

In line with its mandate, the Commission is currently investigating all allegations of violations of international law in the Syrian Arab Republic and will issue its findings to teh Human Rights Council on 3 June, 2013, as mandated by resolution 22.24.

When the third of June rolled around, Pinherio reported to the Human Rights Council as promised, but did not lay the blame on the shoulders of the rebels, or Assad, or conclude for sure that chemical weapons were used in the first place:

137. The Government has in its possession a number of chemical weapons. THe dangers extend beyond the use of the weapons by the Government itself to the control of such weapons in the event of either fractured command or any of the affiliated forces gaining access.

138. Anti-government armed groups could gain access to and use chemical weapons. This includes nerve agents, though there is no compelling evidence that these groups possess such weapons or their requisite delivery systems.

139. Allegations were received concerning the use of chemical weapons by both parties. The majority concern their use by government forces. […] It has not been possible, on the evidence available, to determine the precise chemical agents, their delivery systems, or the perpetrator.

In truth, the U.N. has been exceptionally determined to avoid assigning blame for the use of chemical weapons, going so far as to either agree or offer to not include having its team of weapons inspectors even able to make such a determination. Instead, as I explained at ThinkProgress, they are only present within Syria to determine whether chemical agents were unleashed against the population at all.

So far, the Obama administration has played its information close to the chest, stating that they would be issuing declassified versions of the intelligence it’s gathered in the near future. Congress has yet to even be fully briefed, so I certainly don’t know the contents of it. And for all I know, Del Ponte may have been right in saying that there was evidence at the time that it was rebels who used sarin gas.

That, however, still doesn’t mean that there’s any real accuracy in making the claim that the United Nations itself has assigned blame in the matter. So to say that “the U.N.” has said the rebels cast the first stone regarding chemical weapons is simply false.

March 31, 2013

The UN, War, and the Korean Peninsula, or, We Have No Idea What’s Going On

It’s that time of year again, that time when the thoughts of many in D.C. turn to “Is today the day we’re going to war with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea?” D.C. is a weird place. In any case, the question is out there, and whether you agree with the analysis that we should be more worried this time than the many, many other instances of sabre-rattling from North Korea, it’s worth investigating a few less considered questions about any possible U.S. response to the DPRK.

Among those questions that I can honestly say is probably the least considered is “What about the United Nations?” Specifically “What about the U.N.’s original authorization for force against Korea?” Much like DC is a weird place, I am a weird person. But as the rhetoric has increased over the last few weeks, I’ve found myself considering just what role the U.N. would be in the event of renewed hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. I’m not just talking about the normal round of sanctions or diplomatic statements from the U.N. Security Council, but what role they should play in authorizing the use of force in the event of war.

We all know that the there’s no real peace between the Republic of Korea and the DPRK, whether Kim Jong-Un says there’s a “state of war” between the two countries or not. And despite the multiple attempts of Pyongyang to call the whole thing off, the cease-fire between the two is still in place according to the United Nations. And the simple fact is that should North Korea attack the South, Seoul has the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, whether the Council takes action or not.

But that right only goes as far as repulsion, defending against an attack, not necessarily an all-out offensive against the North or a preventative strike. So that led me to wonder just what authorities remain in place from the last time the two countries slugged it out: the Korean War. The fight against North Korea following its 1950 invasion of the South was — in name at least — fought under the banner of the United Nations.

So to begin with, let’s examine the resolutions the Security Council passed to authorize the use of force in Korea in the first place. Resolution 83, passed in the aftermath of a prior demand that North Korea cease hostilities being totally ignored, authorized the members of the U.N. to take action against the North. Sort of:

Recommends that the Members of the United Nations furnish such assistance to the Republic of Korea as may be necessary to repel the armed attack and to restore international peace and security in the area.

That was quickly followed up with Resolution 84, that put the United States in charge of the U.N. operations in Korea and gave the commander the permission to do so in the name of the United Nations:

3. Recommends that all Members providing military forces and other assistance pursuant to the aforesaid Security Council resolutions make such forces and other assistance available to a unified command under the United States of America;

4. Requests the United States to designate the commander of such forces;

5. Authorizes the unified command at its discretion to use the United Nations flag in the course of operations against North Korean forces concurrently with the flags of the various nations participating;

Note that word there again — “recommends.” The Security Council was still less than a decade old at this time, and the language used in resolutions still had not been codified as it is today. These days, it’s accepted that use of the phrase “demands” or “commands” or other, stronger words is necessary to make the policies put forward from the Council totally binding. The early Security Council also wasn’t big on detail, preferring to pass short, broad resolutions, rather than the dense documents we see today.

Also, the fact is that the only reason the Council was able to take action against North Korea in the first place was the worst timed boycott in history; the Soviet Union was sitting out the debate and totally regret the decision. In any case, the original resolutions passed the Council, but with the return of the USSR, Moscow’s veto prevented much other action.

So they moved to the General Assembly. Yes, the Korean War prompted the conception of the “Uniting for Peace” resolution, wherein the General Assembly could bypass the Security Council in the event of a deadlock. I’ve written a good amount about why that was a bit shaky to begin with, so just go read that, but the G.A. then took command of U.N. policy towards Korea.

All of this is to say that the legal framework originally set up for the United Nations Command is on somewhat weak standing to begin with. The United Nations Command (UNC), by the by, is the formal name for group that took enforcement action against Pyongyang and soon Beijing. There was no such thing as the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, no power to the Secretary-General to really shape how this worked. Everything was run first through the UNSC, then the General Assembly. Again, sort of — the United States held all command authority, and the U.N. took part in name only, having no effect on strategy or tactics in the field aside from naming China a belligerent in late 1950.

For better or for worse, the UNC carried out its mission over the next several years, under the United States’ leadership. All of the deaths and years of fighting ultimately culminated in the Armistice Agreement, signed between — technically — the United Nations Command and North Korea. That Agreement gave a role to the UNC in administering the cease-fire, and set up the Demilitarized Zone as well as other, lesser known legal entities. Among those entities are the Military Armistice Commission (MAC), nestled under the UNC, and the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission (NNSC).

While regular meetings of the two sides’ MAC members have halted in favor of meetings between duty officers in Panmunjom, the NNSC is still gong strong. The NNSC was originally to be composed of forces from nations who did not take part in the fighting watching over the DMZ, with the UNC-side nominating two countries and the DPRK nominating the other. The UNC choices of Sweden and Switzerland are still in place, while the Czech Republic and Hungary were forced out after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. The Washington Post’s Max Fisher recently suggested that a factory shared between the North and South is the place to watch for any sign of coming war; for my money, I say watch to see if the Swiss and Swedes are ever forced to leave as the true sign that the worst is coming.

In any case, the vast majority of the forces donated by U.N. Member States to the operation left after 1953, and operational duties of the U.S. and South Korean forces now falls under the Combined Forces Command (CFC). Established in 1978, this bilateral organization was designed to take the place of the UNC in commanding those that oppose the DPRK. Again, sort of — you’re beginning to see why this whole thing is ridiculously hard to untangle. Because as it turns out the UNC is still alive and kicking, so much so that it has a Commander — General James D. Thurman — who is also the head of the CFC.

That’s because, as it turns out, the authority of the United Nations Command was never switched off. No sunset clause was placed in the original resolutions, nor has the Security Council passed anything closing that authority like we’ve seen recently in the case of Libya. In fact, the latest action the U.N. took on the UNC was all the way back 1975. Even then, it was only two contradictory General Assembly resolutions, one “hoping” that the United Nations Command eventually be dissolved, the other “considering it necessary” that the UNC be dissolved. Neither was binding, neither followed through on.

The DPRK has as recently as this year said the United Nations Command should be dissolved. The U.S. at one point agreed, telling the Security Council in 1975 that the UNC would be dissolved in early 1976, as “the U.N. flag no longer flies only over most military installations” in Korea, only those places that help administer the armistice. Washington clearly changed its mind though at some point, because in 1994 then-Secretary-General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali told North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s request that the UN be terminated that only the U.S. — and not any U.N. organ — has “the authority to decide on the continued existence or the dissolution of the United Nations Command.” And here it remains.

And all of that only takes into account the United Nations direct authority, not factoring in things like whether the U.S.-RoK mutual defense treaty trumps any need for a new resolution from the Security Council. So in the end, we return to the question “Does the United Nations approval for the use of force against Korea still stand?” The answer to that question was best given by The Simpsons‘ Rev. Lovejoy: “Short answer, ‘Yes, with an if’; long answer ‘No, with a but.'”

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November 15, 2012

In Defense of Susan Rice

Your eyes do not deceive you; after months of radio silence, this blog is back at least for a short time. As you can see from the About page, there have been quite a few changes on the personal front that led to me going dark for a bit, namely that I’m now blogging full-time over at ThinkProgress. It’s a great job, but sometimes I have a U.N. rant in me that just needs to get out. This is one of those instances.

In the event that you’ve been living under a rock for the last two months, Amb. Susan Rice has been under near constant attack for going on the Sunday shows back on September 16th and laying out what the Administration knew at the time regarding the attack in Benghazi. With the added layer of her likely receiving the nod to become the next Secretary of State when Hillary Clinton steps down in the coming weeks, all eyes have been on her. As a public official, that’s more than fair; what’s not fair is to judge her based on anything other than her record of service.

The ur-example of doing so would be Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom have seemed to exposed their own desire to pursue political points over actual facts when it comes to Benghazi. That the two of them have chosen Rice as their whipping boy on Benghazi is, as the President has said, unfair and in my personal opinion borderline cowardice. The United Nations is never a popular institution and to choose to go after its face is to try to exploit that weakness. Moreover, the facts at the time supported Rice’s statements, she was extremely careful in her wording, and those facts came straight from the intelligence community.

In response to the President’s full-throated defense, Sen. Graham snapped back, asking on Sean Hannity’s show last night:

Why did they pick her? If she had nothing to do with Benghazi. She is not in charge of conflict security. She works in the U.N. Why nobody from the State Department. I believe she’s a close political ally of the President. She went on national TV, four or five days after the attack, when there is no credible information that the video scenario was real and she either through incompetence or an intentional effort to mislead the American people, tried to spin a story that would help the President because if it was true that this was an al-Qaeda attack, long-time in the making, that killed our ambassador and three other brave Americans, so much for the story, we killed bin Laden, al-Qaeda’s on the run, being dismantled.

That nobody on the right seems to be able to draw the connection between Rice’s role in the launch of the Libya operation, at the United Nations of all places, and the Administration choosing her as the spokesperson in light of the attack upon Benghazi doesn’t speak well to their reasoning skills. Rice has proven herself time and again an eloquent speaker with an ease on camera and possessed a wealth of knowledge on Libya. Why not choose her?

Almost more discouraging is when slams against Rice shroud themselves with air of being actual inquiries into her record. Richard Grenell, briefly national security spokesman for Romney for President and former U.S. Mission to the U.N. spokesman under the Bush administration, has a piece out today where he runs through Susan Rice’s time at Turtle Bay and finds her lacking. The problem with his analysis is his glossing over of facts and nuances in favor of a demagogic desire to rip down Rice before she can ascend to Foggy Bottom.

Among the main contentions that Grenell has with Rice is that she built up to be far more effective at the U.N. than in actuality. His primary evidence for this claim? That the Administration has only passed a singular resolution on Iran since taking office in 2009, compared to the five in President Bush’s eight years:

Take the crucial issue of Iran.  Rice spent the last several years undermining and grumbling about the Bush administration’s increasingly tough measures but has only been able to pass one resolution of her own – compared with the Bush team’s five.

Rice’s one and only Iran resolution was almost 30 months ago.  And it passed with just 12 votes of support – the least support we have ever seen for a Security Council sanctions resolution on Iran.  In fact, Rice lost more support with her one resolution than the previous five Iran resolutions combined.  She may claim she has repaired relationships with other countries but the evidence shows she’s gotten less support than the team she ridicules.

Let’s dig into this slightly. On the surface, we can see that comparing the one resolution in the last four years to the five in the Bush years has an issue in differing time frames; eight years to four doesn’t quite line up for a straight comparison. In addition, we have to examine the contents of the resolutions. Those passed by the Bush Administration were certainly laudable in the support they gained, but were incremental scale-ups in terms of actions taken. Each one built off of the previous, ratcheting up the penalties for first the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, then the Iranian government writ large. By the time the Obama administration took office, the international community, namely Russia and China in this instance, had been led almost as far as they were willing to go in terms of Iran. What Resolution 1929 managed to achieve was probably as far as the Security Council will be able to punish Iran, barring the use of sweeping trade embargoes of the sort that devastated Iraq in the late nineties or a new escalation by Iran in the face of sanctions currently in place.

Now, turning to Grenell’s complaint about the number of votes that Resolution 1929 received  we can also see that his cries of failure don’t quite carry water. The most important thing to note in terms of 1929’s support is that it received yes votes from all five Permanent Members of the Security Council. Not abstentions, with their tacit level of support demonstrated by deigning passage. Solid yes votes, affirming the contents, including an arms embargo of the sort that Russia and China have typically shied from, without any trepidation. The no votes, and singular abstention, that Grenell notes have little to do with the effectiveness of Rice’s lobbying and everything to do with the make-up of the Security Council in 2010.

Lebanon voted against the resolution, an unsurprising turn of events considering the history between it and Iran. Likewise unsurprising is the opposition to the resolution from Brazil and Turkey. During 2010, Brazil and Turkey were trying to capitalize on their position as “rising Powers” to make a more solid mark on the international security sphere. In seeking to be seen as distinct from Western powers, the two states sought a separate peace with Iran, attempting to develop a solution that all-sides could agree with. The U.S. reacted coolly to this freelancing, gaining the reaction that is evident in the voting records. Unless Grenell supported the Turko-Brazilian initiative over the strong sanctions won by Rice, I’m uncertain what he expected the outcome to be.

Grenell also faults Rice for the failure to secure a resolution on Syria for months on end:

UN members, not surprisingly, prefer a weak opponent.  Rice is therefore popular with her colleagues.  It may explain why she ignored Syria’s growing problems for months.

Speaking out and challenging the status quo is seldom cheered at the UN.  Her slow and timid response left the United States at the mercy of Russia and China, who ultimately vetoed a watered down resolution an unprecedented three times.

Among the things left unstated by Grenell is that the Russians and Chinese vetoed three resolutions not because of Susan Rice’s weakness, but because they believed that it was in their best interest to do so, the same reason why the Bush Administration vetoed so many watered-down resolutions on Israel. Further, unless he believes that Rice was the designer of Syrian policy across the Federal government, it’s hard to see how he finds her at fault her. It’s also surprising that he seems to be lauding the Chinese and Russian models of decisive action at the U.N., which in most cases amounts to be obstructionist in nature, with few positive suggestions to bring to the table.

The rest of Grenell’s argument is equally as vacuous, picking as his evidence articles where he himself is cited or heavily quoted. Among those instances of utter failure that he lists: not being present for Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Red Line” speech at the General Assembly this year and having her deputy attend several meetings where Israel was the subject. More specious, he calls out Rice for not speaking out against Libya’s election to the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2010. Given that at the time Qadhafi was seen as a rehabilitated leader who was attempting to make his way back into the international community, and that Susan Rice led the charge to have Libya removed the following year, Grenell falls flat.

This isn’t to suggest that Ambassador Rice is far and away the most qualified candidate to take over the 7th floor office at State. There are plenty of reasons to be unsupportive of her potential candidacy, including her well-documented sharp tongue and commanding personality. But those have to do with her actual qualifications to be Secretary of State, unbiased by partisanship and slander. If the President does choose to nominate Rice, I will be somewhat disappointed. But only because it means she won’t be roaming the halls of Turtle Bay as frequently.

September 21, 2012

Extended Version: Palestine Seeking Observer Membership Status at UN

As you may have heard, the Palestinian Authority has opted to return to the U.N. this year to seek recognition. I have a piece up on UN Dispatch to that very effect. While the government of President Abbas has said now that they’ll delay the vote until after the U.S. Presidential elections, that’s all it is: a delay. This year, it’s going to be way harder to convince the Palestinians to back down from their efforts, for a number of reasons.

First the ease in which the vote should come out in their favor has to be a draw. The Palestinian Mission is already predicting upwards of 120 votes in favor of their upgrade, far more than the necessary 97 required. Indeed, they’re hoping for a blowout vote of “between 150 and 170 nations” voting ‘yes’. Knowing that this is so close within their grasp will make it hard for the U.S. and others to cut a deal halting it.

The difficulty in dissuading Abbas is compounded by the domestic situation in Ramallah. Last year’s U.N. push resulted in Abbas receiving a hero’s welcome upon his return from New York. This year, he’s faced a surge in pushback against his government, culminating in protests that have roiled the West Bank. Abbas is left in need of a short-term win to distract from the economic troubles that the Palestinian people have been bearing. A successful recognition of the State of Palestine by the United Nations would lift his standing enough to give him breathing room.

Abbas is betting that Palestinian independence can be better achieved with the help of its new standing at the ICC, giving him a long-term incentive to pursue the vote. Difficulty comes in the midterm, as Israel reacts to a Palestinian upgrade. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has already threatened to withhold much needed tax revenue from the West Bank government should they proceed, which would further the economic calamity in the West Bank. Also uncertain is the effect that de jure statehood would have regarding the split between Abbas’ Fatah government in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

So the odds are good that we’re going to see Palestine bumped up to being an Observer State at the U.N. this Fall. The real question is what repercussions that will have both directly between Israel and Palestine and what it means for the United States and the U.N. in general.

September 14, 2012

In a Crazy Week, Whither the Security Council?

After a relatively staid August, the last week has been absolutely exhausting in the amount of foreign policy news that has broken. Not a single day has gone by without some major turn of event happening, in literally every corner of the globe. Peace has been breached in several instances and death counts reported in several of the crises that have sprung up.

Throughout all of this, what has the United Nations Security Council been doing? The Council is, after all, supposed to be the arbiter of the use of force and the protector of international peace and security. So why, in a week of such turmoil, has the Council’s formal agenda for the week’s meetings been so sparse?

The answer is in part that because of the nature of the conflicts at hand the Security Council has no space in which to be an effective, or necessary, player. In other instances, the Council has been seemingly absent, but only because it has literally done all it can short of authorizing force in many of the situations where it has played a role. I’ll run through several of this week’s flare-ups and clarify just why the U.N. has, or hasn’t, taken the actions that it has.


On Monday, Somalia finally managed to lurch out of its transitional phase, with the selection of Hassan Sheikh as President by the newly seated Parliament. The very next day, the al-Shabaab militant group labeled the vote as fraudulent and a “ploy by the West”. Two days into his term in office, President Sheikh was the target of an assassination attempt:

Two of the suicide bombers struck, one near the gate and one at the back of the Jazeera Hotel near the airport as the president was giving a briefing for the news media with the visiting Kenyan foreign minister, Samson K. Ongeri.

Another attacker was shot as he tried to scale the walls of the compound, according to a statement from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia.

The attack did not interrupt the news conference and the president continued his speech. “This is the Mogadishu we are trying to change,” he said.

Of the many crises that have sprung up in the past few days, none are closer to the Council than Somalia. Indeed, the Security Council has, to put it mildly, been intimately involved with the effort to restore Somalia following its collapse in 1992. The Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that Mr. Sheikh’s government is replacing had the strong backing of the United Nations writ large.

The Security Council also approved the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to operate under Chapter VIII of the U.N. Charter.  In doing so, the Council empowered the African Union to utilize the Council’s Chapter VII use of force provisions in its mission to protect civilians and push back against militants, including those that targeted President Sheik on Wednesday. AMISOM is partially funded and equipped by the United Nations as well.

The mandate of AMISOM was just renewed in February of this year and revised to up the total allowed force to include the forces Kenya sent across the border in October 2011. The election of President Sheikh and the attempt on his life, while both major events in Somalia’s recovery or lack thereof, do little to affect the mission of AMISOM in any way that would require swift Council action. Instead, AMISOM seems to be continuing to protect Mogadishu and its attempts to finally take the port town of Kismayo.

Surprisingly, however, the Security Council has yet to put out a statement, either of the Press or Presidential variety, congratulating Mr. Sheikh nor condemning the attempt on his life. The silence on the matter could be one of tactical silence, due to the overwhelming role that the Council had in supporting the TFG and a desire to not unduly influence the new government. What’s unfortunately more likely, however, is that the passage of such a Statement was deemed a lower priority by the Members of the Council’s missions in the lead-up to the General Assembly. In either case, some word from the Security Council would do away with any notion that Somalia is slipping back into the recesses of the international community’s mind.


The largest news in the United States this week on the foreign policy front has been the attacks on U.S. Embassies and Consulates in various countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. These attacks have ranged in size, scale and motive, but have taken the lives of four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. And as of Friday morning, the German and British Embassies have been targeted as well.

The fact of the matter is that these attacks, while particularly heinous, are not the sort of issues that the Security Council deals with directly. Indeed, the question of embassy protection is mostly bilateral in nature and of greater importance to the states in question than the overall maintenance of peace and security. While the attacks, even those in Egypt where no lives were lost, are clear breaches of the Vienna Convention of 1961 and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, the Council is in no position to act as an enforcer of those provisions. Indeed, any attempt to do more than issue the condemnatory statements against the attacks that it has would be imprudent, save at the unlikely request of one of the countries whose embassies have been sacked.

Anything more the Council can do, it already has. As an example, the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was developed in the aftermath of the fall of the Qaddafi regime to provide assistance to the new government in establishing its control of its territory. The Security Council received a briefing by Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman on Wednesday, as he was previously scheduled to introduce the most recent UNSMIL report to the members:

“This horrific and tragic attack, together with a spate of assassinations of security personnel in Benghazi, a series of explosive devices in Tripoli, and attacks on Sufi shrines, further emphasizes the security challenge facing the authorities in Libya,” [said Feltman].

In the report itself, the mission highlighted a lack of central control by Tripoli over the many militias still active within Libya and difficulties in bringing the police force up to speed. Also, with the revocation of Resolution 1973’s authorization for countries to use force in Libya for “civilian protection”, any new authorization will have to get through a new vote on the Council, the likelihood of which is somewhere between slim and nil.

Likewise, in Yemen, the Security Council passed Resolutions 2014 and 2051 in 2011 and 2012 respectively to push a political transition in Yemen that would facilitate a changeover from former President Saleh’s regime. Outside of the Council, the Secretary-General appointed as his Special Representative for Yemen Jamal Benomar. SRSG Benomar was due to have been in Sana’a on Wednesday; it’s unknown if he was still in the capital during the protests at the U.S. Embassy, but it will be interesting to hear his next briefing. In any case, there is no useful role the Council could have taken in this incident.

As for Egypt and Sudan, in the former the United Nations has thus far, wisely, kept a hands-off role with the situation that has been developing internally there. The Embassy breach there is a matter for the United States and Egypt solely to work out, a process that is already under way after fits and starts. In the latter, the U.N. Security Council has enough to worry about in its handling of Khartoum to put forward anything more than a strong condemnation, considering it still requires Sudan’s by your leave to operate two peacekeeping missions in the area, one in Darfur, the other in the disputed territory of Abyei.

East/South China Sea 

Last night, going by U.S. time, China dispatched a small fleet of patrol boats near the set of islands in the middle of a dispute between themselves and several other states to provide “law enforcement”. The islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan, are little more than clusters of uninhabitable rock in some places, but may hold valuable natural resources off their coast lines. More importantly, the ownership of the islands also helps determine the coastal waters of each country.

Sending out their patrol boats was meant to be a message of warning to Japan over its Tuesday announcement that it will purchase several of the islands from who Japan recognizes as their private owner. The Global Times issued an editorial stressing the need for Chinese unity to prevail throughout its development, noting that “China has no choice but to respond to Japan’s outrageous provocation. This is a vital step for China to consolidate its claims of sovereignty in the East and South China Seas.”

Maritime issues over tiny islands extend beyond Japan and China, with further claims laid by Viet Nam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines to ownership of various portions of island chains throughout the East and South China Seas. Separately from the Chinese and Japanese clash, the Philippines declared this week at the waters near the islands they lay claim to were not within the South China Sea, but rather the “West Philippine Sea”. China was less than impressed. No matter the name of the sea the islands are located in, China’s moving ships into the area to enforce Chinese law raises the ante on the need for a settlement.

As I have noted previously, Asia is, and will continue to be, something of blind spot for the Security Council. These maritime disputes fall squarely within China’s sphere of influence, an area that China has been loathe to bring to international bodies for arbitration. Already, China has been extremely uncomfortable in allowing the South China Sea dispute to be discussed at the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The United States has been making a concerted push for negotiations on the final status of the islands to be made with ASEAN acting in unison, a move that China views warily at best, an attempt to unite the community against it at worst. Instead, China laboriously insists on concluding settlement over each of the claims bilaterally, where it will have more influence over the final outcome.

The fact is that China would prefer to keep it’s maritime boundaries negotiations as far away from the Security Council as possible. For the Security Council to discuss them would be an admission that actions were being taken that were a potential breach in international peace and security, a charge which could be levied at China itself. Even were the issue to come under debate, which is still possible as there is no way for the PRC to unilaterally block procedural motions such as placing items on the agenda, any resolution that China would find unfavorable to its interests would simply be vetoed.


In summation, despite the hectic view of recent events from the United States, the U.N. Security Council has not been overly negligent in carrying out assigned duties. Instead, in areas where it has space to act, it has done so, or continued to proceed with decisions that had been previously made on the various hot spots. In some areas, however, it is constrained by its very make-up, an issue that could become a much larger problem as Asia becomes more of a breeding ground for state-to-state conflict.

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September 11, 2012

The DPRK’s Victim Complex Strikes Again

I’m in the middle of writing what has turned into far too long a piece on the feasibility of a UN Rapid Response Force and needed something to distract me from how much more I have to finish writing. So I, of course, began browsing through the recently released documents of the United Nations that arrive in my inbox every afternoon. In today’s batch, I came across something that is on its face preposterous, in examination troubling.

The document in question is a memorandum of the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent from the Mission to the President of the Security Council on August 30th. The memo, titled “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea terms hostile United States policy main obstacle in resolving nuclear issue” is a wonderland of paranoia and revisionism, intended to frame the lack of resolution on North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal as being solely the fault of the U.S.

The entire ten-page memo is worth a read, if for no other reason than to get a good English-language look into the psyche of the North Korean government or at least the face it is putting forward. Also, it does actually provide a good background primer into the myriad of sanctions that the United States has levied upon the DPRK throughout its history. While the protestations against said sanctions ring hollow, the actual timeline and existence of them are factual.

Beyond that, the piece is immensely quotable. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that there were actual nuclear weapons in the hands of this regime, the whole thing would be ten times funnier. But here are some of the choicest quotes from the letter, pulled out for your enjoyment, with any emphasis my own:

“The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, considering the concerns of the United States, agreed to a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment activity while productive dialogues continue.
However, when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea launched “Kwangmyongsong 3”, an artificial satellite for peaceful purposes, on 13 April last, the United States took issue with it, arguing that the space launch was based on the same technology as the long-range missile launch, and went ahead with unilaterally abrogating the 29 February agreement, upgrading sanctions on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
It is true that both satellite carrier rockets and missiles with warheads use similar technology. However…”

“The remaining three quarters of the sanctions — sanctions under the pretext of “threat to the security of the United States”, “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”, “sponsor of terrorism”, “human rights”, “religious freedom”, “moneylaundering”, “missile development”, “human trafficking”, etc., many of which are based on absurd allegations — are applied at the discretion of the United States President or relevant departments of the United States administration.”

“Our nuclear deterrent for self-defence is a treasured sword that prevents war and ensures peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.”

Ridiculous as many of the statements may be, their bluster does seem to cast a shadow on the chances that the DPRK will be rejoining talks anytime soon on dismantling their nuclear arsenal. At the core of their argument, the North Koreans have what is almost a legitimate point, rationalizing their development of nuclear weapons as a deterrence against the United States. It’s true that the regime’s survival is threatened the Americans, though for different reasons than those given. Where they truly fail to gain sympathy, however, is in dismissing the legitimate concerns of the international community, expressed multiple times by the entirety of the Security Council, as “absurd allegations”.

For now, North Korea seems relatively content to wait out this current round of radio silence, as it has in the past, until it is unable to avoid negotiations any longer. In the meantime, Kim Jong-Un will tour revamped gymnasiums while a new food shortage looms, hacks will write outlandish travelogues, and the DPRK will continue to ask the world why it can’t see that they’re the true victims here.

September 5, 2012

The U.N.’s peacekeeping mandate is just fine, thanks for asking

The world has yet to reach the point where there is a dearth of articles on the United Nations whose assumptions are off-base. The latest in this series has the provocative title of “Has the U.N. lost its peacekeeping mandate?” Written by Brian P. Klein, a former Foreign Service Officer in Japan and Council on Foreign Relations Fellow, the essay takes an absurd number of shortcuts and liberties with the actual work of the U.N. to somehow reach a conclusion that I don’t entirely disagree with. In the interest of setting the record straight, we begin.

Now that Kofi Annan has stepped down from his position as U.N. Arab League Envoy to Syria and peacekeeping troops are being removed from the country one has to wonder – does the United Nations have any role to play in conflict resolution?

Right off the bat, we’re confronted with an unforced error by Klein. There were never, I repeat, never peacekeeping troops inside of Syria. ‘Troops’ gives the impression that there were forces of the traditional sort first employed in 1956 by the United Nations Emergency Force separating the Egyptian and Israeli armies, the kind who carry arms with the mandate to shoot in self-defense and act as a buffer between clearly defined sides. What he probably meant to refer to was the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria, whose goal was to oversee a ceasefire. But these were unarmed Observers, whose mandate was to watch and report, which they did under increasingly difficult circumstances.

As to the second point, Klein’s argument suffers again from failing to define the terms he uses. Conflict resolution encompasses a multitude of areas, including the provisions of Chapter VI for mediation before violence, an area that the Security Council has actually been lacking in providing lately. Had he been arguing, as many have, that the United Nations was not designed to suppress intrastate violence, vis a vis interstate warfare, he would be given more leeway by me. As he was not, we carry on.

The reality is that the Annan Plan, which supported an interim government to shepherd Syria into a post-dictatorship future, was doomed from the start. Bashar al-Assad was to unilaterally step down in the middle of ongoing hostilities while his forces held the momentum against a popular uprising.

The Annan Plan was, in fact, always unlikely to succeed, but not entirely for the reasons Klein lists. Rather than being an inherit flaw in the plan, as Mark Goldberg noted at UN DispatchAnnan was never truly given the support needed to succeed. We can’t be certain what would have happened had Russia in particular buckled down and pushed Assad to accept the terms of the Annan Plan. However, without that support, Assad would have never accepted the terms. Further, I’m confused as to what Klein suggests would have been a more feasible scheme for Annan to have pitched or what a more ideal move by the international community would have been.

Al-Assad of course played the statesman, met with U.N. officials and allowed troops to enter Syria. No one was fooled for long. His military began an all-out assault soon after Annan’s plane took off. Helicopter gunships and fighter jets strafed cities as civilian casualties mounted. Nearly $17 million was authorized for the 150 military observers and 105 civilians. While a paltry sum considering the more than $7 billion peacekeeping budget, that money could have funded, for example, 2,400 water projects for creating wells to bring safe drinking water to over a million people in need.

His argument that 2,400 water projects could have been funded sounds convincing. But why would that money have been best spent producing wells? Why not inoculating against common diseases? Why not funding a spread of human rights literature?

What Klein touches on here is a less specifically about the United Nations, than about the management of limited resources.  All organizations, be they IGOs or governments, face these questions, and there will always be disagreements on how their resources are best used. There will also always be suggestions that these resources are being used improperly, no matter what the target.

Instead, United Nations’ efforts lengthened by weeks if not months a concerted move by regional powers to openly oppose Syria’s indiscriminate attacks on its citizenry.  The General Assembly then voted to censure its own Security Council for failing to do more.

Klein conveniently ignores the fact that Arab League itself went to the United Nations in support of its peace plan for the region. Following the first veto of Russia and China, the League only returned to the U.N. after the failure of its own observer mission, rather than the U.N. butting in on the initiatives of the regional organization. That the Security Council found itself unable to agree on a course of action actually did little to prevent either the meeting of the “Friends of Syria”, nor the funneling of arms by Gulf states into the hands of rebels.

As far as the ‘censure’ of the Security Council by the General Assembly, the actual event lacked the drama that Klein infused into the action. A resolution condemning Syria’s ongoing abuses included a preambulatory clause, a framing of the issue to translate into non-U.N., “deploring the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”. In other words, shame on the Council for not agreeing on sanctions. A big difference between that and a censure in the diplomatic world, and one calculated to move certain members of the Council. That said members of the Council didn’t vote for said resolution is unsurprising.

The absurdity of the U.N. divided against itself is compounded by the poor track record of stopping violence. Despite the main charter of the U.N. beginning with lofty ideals to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression…” the supra-national force has never been a realistic fighting military. It lacks the command, control, intelligence and weaponry to stop war once it has begun.

Klein’s argument has some historical merit. The United Nations envisioned by Roosevelt involved ‘Four Five Policemen’ acting in unison to combat the world’s ills, and put down revisionist regimes who sought to overthrow the world order. That vision became the Security Council’s Permanent Members, who, by the design of the Soviet Union, were given a veto over the actions of the Council should their own interests be at stake. From the very beginning, the Security Council was created to only act when all the Great Powers were in unison. Barring that unity, as here in Syria, it can’t unleash its military forces against a given target.

The early years of the United Nations also saw the rejection and/or ignoring of two crucial mechanisms to so enforce the peace as placed in the Charter. The Military Staff Committee of the Security Council was meant to be composed of the Chiefs of Staff for the Armed Forces of all the Permanent Members, providing tactical advice to the Council as it fulfilled its mandate of keeping the peace. It exists to this day, a vestigial organ of the Council, which has not briefed its members in over sixty years.

So too provisions for Member States to place divisions of its air force available to the United Nations for immediate use at a moments notice evaporated soon after the Charter’s signing. Initial Cold War mentalities, soon followed by a desire to limit the strength of the U.N. precluded such steps from being taken. I’ve argued previously that should the Council continue to insist on launching new and more complicated peacekeeping and peace enforcing missions that the MSC should be revitalized, the air forces should be provided to the U.N., or both.

Despite all that history in his favor, Klein still seems to have forgotten instances where the full authority of the UN were unlocked, giving way to “all necessary means” resolutions of the Council. With those three words, we’ve seen free rein for the armed forces of its members, the United States in particular, to carry out the Council’s mandates. We’ve seen it in the 1950s in Korea, in the 1990s in Iraq, and, somewhat creatively, in Libya in 2011. The former two were the sorts of interstate conflict that the United Nations was specifically designed to counter and bring to a halt.

With the world economy tilting dangerously towards stagnation, U.N. budgets will inevitably be forced to shrink. The world body would therefore be well advised to focus on its humanitarian strengths and less on the intractable, hard-scrabble world of armed conflict.

This paragraph is in essence advocating getting rid of the Security Council, one of the few bodies that is actually empowered to act and bind states to its decisions, and keeps several members of the Permanent Five in the U.N. to begin with. Moving on!

This isn’t the first time that poorly conceived efforts failed to turn aggression into peaceful resolution. In the 1990’s, U.N. forces were withdrawn in the face of overwhelming evidence of Rwandan genocidal atrocities. In Kosovo, it took then President Bill Clinton committing U.S. forces to protect a Muslim minority from being massacred by their neighbors.

Again with the lack of distinction between interstate and intrastate conflicts. Rwanda was a disaster, and yes, U.N. peacekeeping troops were withdrawn. However, this was due less to the ability of the United Nations than the will of the Member States. No states at the time were willing to increase the mandate of the protection force in Rwanda, despite calls on the ground to do so, and in the face of increased violence opted to simply terminate the mission. The specifics of this incident keep it from fitting neatly into Klein’s framework.

As for Clinton’s foray into Kosovo, yet another intrastate conflict, it’s still shaky whether NATO acted in accordance with international law when bombing Serbia. So to be honest, not sure if he’s advocating removing the provision that only the U.N. Security Council can authorize the use of force from its position as a basis of current international law.

These days, violence still flares in the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite a U.N. presence dating back to July 2010 that now numbers over 23,000 personnel (including 19,000 in uniform) and a budget of $1.4 billion. To keep the peace in Darfur, Sudan (17,000 military) and newly created South Sudan (over 5,500) the U.N. is spending nearly $2.5 billion. And with all those forces in place, tens of thousands still flee fighting as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Doctors Without Borders highlighted in an August report the ongoing health crisis in Batil Camp, South Sudan with diarrhea causing 90 percent of deaths and malnourishment rates in those under two years-old hitting 44 percent. Of all the tragedies of war, these are imminently solvable problems, and yet too many continue to die because of misallocated priorities and resources.

Klein chose the wrong example to highlight his argument by far. MONUSCO is one of the most effective peacekeeping missions, and most strongly empowered to protect civilians. In July, MONUSCO utilized attack helicopters in conjunction with the Congolese Army to protect civilians against the M23 militia. The Congolese government even wants the Security Council to increase MONUSCO’s mandate. Unless Klein is saying that the U.N. should as a matter of blanket policy ignore states that actively ask for help in enforcing peace and protecting civilians inside its borders, contra the second pillar of the Responsibility to Protect, this seems pretty cut and dry.

Further, all of Klein’s arguments about providing for greater humanitarian aid in lieu of U.N. peacekeeping missions preclude two things. First, how much worse would the violence be on the ground without the presence of these missions. Second, how on Earth the NGOs and other humanitarian agencies he cites would be able to do their jobs lacking proper protection from active conflict. It’s not as though aid workers aren’t in enough danger as it is operating in war zones or places where violence is still the norm post-conflict. Is he suggesting that NGOs begin hiring of armed mercenaries to provide that service?

Security Council resolutions, sanctions and other tools of the diplomatic trade do very little to change the on-the-ground reality of war. Arms continue flowing across porous borders despite calls for embargoes. While world leaders make grand speeches defending their non-intervention or the inalienable rights of humanity in the green marbled U.N. headquarters, countries continue to act with or without U.N. sanction. Spending on “political affairs” and “overall policymaking, direction and coordination” accounts for nearly 40 percent of the United Nations’ current $5.1 billion operating budget. Peacekeeping operations total another $7 billion for 2012-2013.

Klein is right in that sanctions don’t completely alter the rules of economics; as the demand remains, the supply will find a way. What he doesn’t mention is that those arms embargoes he scorns exist give states the right to enforce them, through means such as stopping ships on the high seas. He also remains correct that states who don’t like Security Council decisions are not likely to follow them and will seek ways around them. There will always be those, individuals and states alike, who seek to circumvent those rules, but to act as though the world would be a better place without them is a fallacy.

Less sarcastically, he is correct about the absurdity of the U.N. budget spent in operating costs. Part of it comes from just how sprawling the United Nations system is; efforts to make sure everyone knows what everyone else is doing are costly. But were the U.N. as a whole to be judged by the same mechanisms that monitor NGOs spending, it would receive a failing grade.

Yet where the United Nations excels, in disaster relief, health initiatives, education, and support for refugees, programs remain woefully underfunded often requiring public appeals with Hollywood A-listers to bolster their sagging budgets. Few would argue against feeding a malnourished child on the verge of starvation with Angelina Jolie passing out the collections tin. Many would argue for weeks and at considerable expense, mincing words in watered-down, grand sounding political statements on the inherent value of peace.

Certainly, peacekeeping has done some good, but the disproportionate amount spent on these efforts, with such poor results overall and over such a long period of time, need re-examination. A U.N. force has maintained a presence in the Western Sahara since 1994 and has been “stabilizing” Haiti for the past 8 years, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.

Again, poor example. The International Crisis Group recently released a report noting the folly of withdrawing MINUSTAH from Haiti too quickly, stating “it would be foolhardy to rush that process given the serious gaps in consolidating security and justice. Despite the voices advocating for a more rapid exodus, it is unlikely that full departure can or should be accomplished before a third peaceful handover of democratic power takes place at the end of the Martelly presidency, five years from now, which also should correspond to the completion of the second five-year police development plan”.

His overarching point that UN projects that directly impact people on the ground are sorely underfunded does stand, however. The fact that the humanitarian fund for Syria remains under half-pledged, let alone received, is saddening. However, to pull that funding directly from peacekeeping operations would exacerbate problems elsewhere. As noted earlier, the determination of how to divide limited resources is vexing, and should be vexing. If it weren’t, the process would be lacking any sort of analysis or reflection, which would result in a worsening of any organization’s effectiveness.

It is incumbent on major donors like the U.S., Japan and the U.K., which collectively fund nearly half of annual peacekeeping efforts, to weigh in heavily on reform. Direct the limited amount of resources to programs that make a difference and stop relying on antiquated dreams of stateless noble actors bequeathing peace from above. Build on peace from the ground up instead.

Finally, a policy point that we can fully agree on! The United Nations should do more to help prevent conflicts before they reach the state of continued violence. It should also be in the business of building peace post-conflict. If only there was some sort of Peacebuilding Commission within the U.N….

In all seriousness, I agree with several of Klein’s points regarding the allocation of limited resources and his desire for the United Nations to highlight areas where it has historically shone. However, his thesis that the United Nations does more ill than good when it comes to ‘conflict resolution’ is one that is both poorly argued and not backed up by empirical evidence.

August 27, 2012

Iran and the UN: Not exactly BFFs

Iran and the United Nations aren’t on the best of terms right now. The relationship between the two over the last decade has been chilly, at best, as Iran has repeatedly ignored calls from various UN bodies to be more transparent regarding its supposedly civilian nuclear program. Indeed, what was meant to highlight Iran’s solidarity with the non-Western world may in fact wind up showing just how much the rest of the world, the United Nations included, is against it.

Commentators may make much of the Iranian chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), meeting now in Tehran, but the truth is it matters very little in terms of its role in the region and its relation with other states and organizations in general. In a telling look into Iran’s ‘blame anyone but us’ worldview, Iran opened the conference with a call for reform at the United Nations:

“Six decades since its establishment, the United Nations needs fundamental reforms in order to adapt to the modern global developments,” said Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to the report. He added that “a more democratic Security Council” is needed.

Such rhetoric will surely be warmly welcomed by the attendees at the NAM Summit. Expansion of the Security Council has been a gripe that rising powers have had for the last several decades, backed by smaller countries and developing states alike.

But would a reformed Security Council change its tune on Iran? Not likely. In calling for reform, Tehran forgets its recent history. In 2010, the Security Council voted in favor of a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in Resolution 1929. These sanctions were the toughest yet leveraged against the regime, including a ban on weapons imports and exports, and targeted sanctions against many high-level regime members.

Both China and Russia, erstwhile allies of Iran, voted in favor of this package, much to the theocracy’s chagrin. It is unlikely that an expanded Council would have voted otherwise, considering all five current Permanent Members voted in favor. Of the most likely additional Permanent Members (Japan, Brazil, Germany, India), Brazil was present on the Council that year and abstained on the resolution. This abstention, which it was joined in by Turkey, was less about support for Iran and its nuclear program than a Middle Power push to engage Iran outside the Council.

Iran fares no better in any of the other organs of the United Nations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a member of the UN umbrella of agencies, has been expressing its concern over Iran’s nuclear program for years. It was the IAEA that first referred the Iranian situation to the Security Council in the first place back in 2006 and continues to offer up grim statements on the uncooperative nature of Iran towards IAEA verification programs.

The UN Human Rights Council, despite its reputation for coddling regimes such as Iran has appointed Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran. Ahmed Shaheed’s mandate was renewed in March 2012, but he has been denied access into the country thus far. He still manages to report regularly to the HRC on the troubling record that Iran continues to accrue, including suppression of civil liberties and summary executions.

No love is lost between the Secretariat and Iran, either. Much has been made of the diplomatic “tug of war” between the United States and Iran in whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon would attend the Summit or not. Though Iran supposed it won, and Ban has been derided for capitulating to Tehran, Iran will be getting more than it bargained for. Per the Spokesman of the Secretary-General, Ban will use the opportunity to be much more blunt with Iran than its leaders had in mind when insisting on his presence in Tehran:

“With respect to the Islamic Republic of  Iran, the Secretary-General will use the opportunity to convey the clear concerns and expectations of the international community on the issues for which cooperation and progress are urgent for both regional stability and the welfare of the Iranian people. These include Iran’s nuclear programme, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria.”

Even in the most democratic of the UN’s organs, the General Assembly, Iran can’t seem to catch a break. In December, a resolution was tabled in the Assembly condemning Iran’s ongoing human rights abuses, as it has been for the last several years. This year’s version passed by a vote of eighty-nine in favor and thirty against. It can hardly be said that a reform of the General Assembly is among the list of demands by the members of the Non-Aligned Movement.

The United Nations often makes a great target for attack, no matter the state in question. Unfortunately for Iran, even should its calls for reform come to pass, they would be unlikely to change the fact that Iran is becoming more isolated than ever If anything, the need for Iran to stress so hard the few ties to the rest of the world it has left at the Non-Aligned Movement highlight the efficacy of the efforts of the West to get the label ‘pariah state’ to stick.