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Congressional approval for a military strike against Syria is not enough, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - US presidents seem to be addicted to starting wars. It is now Barack Obama’s turn. I listened carefully over the weekend first to a speech by his secretary of state, John Kerry, and later one by himself, in which they presented the case for military action. And I am far from convinced.
First, Kerry told the world it is clear that chemical weapons were used. Visuals of the dead and injured were consistent with those of people attacked with such weapons. Reports by medical staff corroborated the likelihood of this being the case.
Kerry assured the world that US intelligence showed there was planning for several days prior to the use of such weapons; that the weapons were rained down in rebel-controlled areas that are densely populated; and that they were launched, correspondingly, from government sites.
He essentially said to us: “Trust me, we know this!”
As many immediately said, this reminded them of former secretary of state Colin Powell’s equally muscular assertions about such weaponry in Iraq, which could subsequently not be verified.
So looking confidently into the camera and putting on your best Hollywood voice isn’t good enough. Share the information with the UN for independent assessment.
For me, it also conjured up images of former British prime minister Tony Blair trying to convince us that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein could, within 45 minutes, launch weapons of mass destruction. Only for us to find out subsequently about sexed-up intelligence reports, and no weapons of mass destruction.
Does this mean intelligence claims from the US or UK should permanently be distrusted? No. That would be irrational. Not least when we can see the images of the dead and injured for ourselves on YouTube.
But the solution, surely, is for the US to share what it knows with the UN. Given the complex geopolitical tension at play in the Middle East, wide consensus within the international community on how to respond to the situation is crucial to ensure low or zero perceptions of an illegitimate military response in the event that military action is eventually decided on by anyone.
By making a unilateral case for military action, the US is undermining the authority of the UN and increasing geopolitical discord. That is unnecessary, and strategically unsound, militarily, because it would lead to more backlash against the US.
It would also, ironically, make Syria potentially less safe for the very citizens who Obama pretends to care about because it could aggravate the situation by emboldening the Syrian government in its resolve to eliminate the opposition through all means possible.
Interestingly, Obama is aware that not everyone within the US would agree with him. And so he has decided to seek congressional approval for military action despite himself having decided that military action is warranted.
This is, of course, a bit weird. If you are hell-bent on instantly stopping chemical weapons being used to kill innocent people, why wait 10 days for a debate?
Isn’t prioritising a debate in Congress a weird political choice after moralising to the world about the wrong of doing nothing? Is Obama saying he doesn’t care for the use of chemical weapons before the debate happens?
Set that aside. The deeper problem is that if Obama can recognise that consensus-seeking within the US Congress is crucial to legitimise military action against Syria, then why is he willing to bypass UN processes where seeking authorisation is also important?
The US Congress is not the international community. Seeking consensus within the UN, and deferring to the work of UN inspectors, and the UN Security Council, are arguably more crucial, politically and militarily.
I’ve heard one constant and predictable response to my view so far in the past day or so. “The UN is ineffective, Eusebius! Russia will veto any action!”
Two problems with this: First, why are the UN’s inherent consensus-seeking challenges not a problem when the US is vetoing actions that Russia or China would dearly like to take that further their self-interests? The UN, and especially the Security Council, is imperfect and hamstrung by national interests, sure, but is that an overriding reason to support Obama undermining it openly?
Second, if the UN is paralysed as claimed, can we then be honest and ask the UN to shut business tomorrow and see what would happen in a multi-polar world without the imperfect UN around at all?
It’s dangerously glib to say the US need not respect the UN’s authority.
None of this means the Syrian government must get a free pass. The point is that the US must defer to international law and international forums, and make sure that military action is based on proven and shared intelligence about who the aggressor is, as well as a clear plan not just of what military action to take now, but what will happen the morning after the last missile has landed.
Did we not learn anything from history?
* McKaiser hosts Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power FM 98.7 weekdays 9am to noon.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.