When the British parliament voted earlier in the week on a preliminary motion supporting a military attack on Syria, onlookers got a taste of what the decision of a country to go to war would look like when that decision is made through some kind of a democratic process. MPs inflicted a surprising defeat on David Cameron’s government. Opponents of the war came not only from the opposition Labour Party, but also in significant numbers from the Conservative Party’s ranks, and from its coalition partner in government, the Liberal Democrats (the only party to oppose the war on Iraq in 2003).
There has to this point been no such democratic process in the United States, and the same President who regularly orders extrajudicial killings (i.e. murders), who escalated the war in Afghanistan without putting it to a vote, who bombed Libya without a vote, and who expanded the U.S. War of Terror to Somalia, Yemen and beyond without a vote, now seems to have been scared by Cameron’s experience (and perhaps by shifting public opinion) into putting responsibility for the bombing of Syria at Congress’ door.
Of course, in the minds of the President and his legal team, a bombing campaign in Syria would not be a war. Their tortured logic requires us to believe that a war is only a “real war” if there are boots on the ground, and the launching of missiles and dropping of bombs on people in another country is a comparatively trivial matter, about which Congress and the public need not worry their poor, overwrought little heads.
In fact, in the eyes of the Obama administration, the United Nations need not worry either, and their war-making would be oh-so much easier if the UN and its scientists and its democratic process would just get out of the way and let the bombing begin. They have repeatedly said that the UN investigation into the responsibility for the chemical attack in Syria is an unnecessary sideshow, and have made it clear that in their minds the United States has no reason to go through the process of securing a resolution at the UN or of acceding to international law.
Frustration with the United Nations is understandable, but it is a bit hypocritical of the United States to complain so furiously. After all, the UN is no more convoluted or slow-moving than the U.S. Senate. And it provides a good vehicle for gauging how people in other countries will be affected by U.S. military interventions, something which hindsight suggests might be an important consideration. The primary complaint about the UN process in this particular interest is that U.S. jingoism will be checked by China and Russia which have a history (not unlike the U.S.!) of backing up dictatorial, violent regimes.
In my view, the U.S. and Britain should begin making the case for themselves, as well as France, China, and Russia, to give up their permanent membership and vetoes on the Security Council. As things stand, a handful of countries wield too much power at the UN. Whether or not the organisation can make itself more democratic, more relevant, less technocratic, and more representative of the citizens of its constituent nations is hard to say. But it is impossible to imagine how, suborned as it so regularly is by the great power manoeuvrings of the U.S. and its European lackeys on the one hand, and the sociopathic regimes in Moscow and Beijing on the other, any of that can occur without those countries being forced to yield up their veto powers.
One historian, Mark Mazower (No Enchanted Palace), has convincingly demonstrated how the idealism of the UN was bent at its foundation into an institutional and ideological form that actually mirrored the great power politics of the day. At the end of the day, if we can’t trust our fellow people in our fellow nations enough to stop clinging to an ossified political structure based on the geopolitics and brinkmanship and world order of the late-1940s and 1950s—an order which saw the defence of vicious European empires, the expansion of U.S. militarism, and a series of cold wars which proved all too devastatingly hot across Latin America, Africa, and Asia—then it’s clearly time to close up the United Nations altogether, abandon the idea of a shared human endeavour, and replace it with a concert of twenty-first century Empires.
As the case of Syria shows, all of the P5 governments are hungry for the ultimate great power status—protecting their own government’s economic and security interests, which have precious little to do with the good of their citizens. This reality makes it difficult for their publics to accept their claims that they have any interest in the welfare of Syrians being butchered in the country’s civil war, knowing as they do of Russia’s economic and military interests in the country and the history of U.S. interventions in the region.
If there is anything we can be sure of, it is that intervention by the U.S. and France will achieve very little that is good, and is much more likely to be motivated by a commitment to their War of Terror or concerns about their own unsustainable national security commitments than by any real sense of how to effectively bring succour to Syrian citizens.