President Obama’s stated willingness to go it alone on Syria surprises those who followed him during the previous administration, when, as a senator, he derided George W. Bush’s commitment to multilateralism and questioned his “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.
Now it is Mr. Obama who is chiding the United Nations for inaction and scrambling to put together a coalition of the willing, touting support from France and a few other nations as he works to convince Americans of the need for military strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities.
Conservative foreign policy analysts were bewildered recently when Mr. Obama announced that he would be “comfortable going forward without the approval” of the U.N. Security Council, which the president said “has been completely paralyzed and unwilling” to hold Mr. Assad accountable for using chemical weapons.
“Perhaps Obama has finally realized that his attachment to the U.N. has made him the world’s useful idiot,” quipped Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who believes the president acted naively in attempting during the past two years to overcome resistance — especially from Russian President Vladimir Putin — toward any Security Council action against Syria.
“He approached a den of snakes with the idealism of a community organizer and let Putin run roughshod over him,” Mr. Rubin said.
“The phrase that leaps to my mind when I think about what’s happened here is ‘mugged by reality,’” said Kurt Volker, who heads the McCain Institute for International Leadership and is a former CIA analyst and career State Department officer.
With specific regard to bombing Syria, said Mr. Volker, “I think President Obama particularly took a strong position on requiring U.N. support, and this is a movement on his part from where he started. No doubt about it.”
He said there are leaders who believe any military action must go through the Security Council, and those in another camp — in which he put himself — that has “given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response is required, and that will not come through Security Council action.”
“I respect those who are concerned about setting precedence of action outside of a U.N. Security Council resolution. You know, I would greatly prefer working through multilateral channels and through the United Nations to get this done,” he said.
“If we end up using the U.N. Security Council not as a means of enforcing international norms and international law but rather as a barrier to acting on behalf of international norms and international law, then I think people rightly are going to be pretty skeptical about the system and whether it can work to protect those children that we saw in those videos,” the president said.
As a U.S. senator, Mr. Obama pushed for the international community to take broader roles in conflicts such as the one in Sudan and in settling thorny issues such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons ambitions.
He joined other Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in resisting the Bush administration’s nomination of John R. Bolton — well-known for his tireless characterizations of the U.N. as an ineffective bureaucracy — to be ambassador to the international body.
But Mr. Obama was not outwardly aggressive toward Mr. Bolton during a Senate confirmation hearing in 2005. In fact, he appeared to approve of the nominee’s overall position that the United Nations was in serious need of reform.
Once in the White House, Mr. Obama’s general deference toward working with the United Nations appeared to shine. During a December 2009 speech in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he described the international body as a mechanism “to govern the waging of war.”
The Obama administration worked closely with the Security Council’s permanent members, including Russia and France, on resolutions aimed at deterring North Korea from testing or developing nuclear weapons.
But Mr. Obama has not always held others to the rule of seeking Security Council approval for military interventions. He turned a blind eye, for instance, when France sent troops into Mali this year. The president even authorized U.S. military support for the mission, arguing that U.N. approval was not needed on grounds that Mali’s government had invited the French troops to intervene.
“In 2011 and 2012, prior to last November’s elections, the U.S. was determined to avoid getting dragged into the Syrian war,” said Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
“The Obama administration was determined to avoid an intervention and, to some extent, Russia’s obstructionism at the U.N. gave the U.S. an alibi,” Mr. Gowan said. “Tussling diplomatically with Russia and China was a sort of good way to avoid action. I think the Security Council did offer diplomatic cover in the run-up to the election.”
“Until the early months of this year, there was more confidence in the West that Assad would lose the war, and one priority for the U.S. was to keep open some sort of U.N. deal at the end of the conflict,” Mr. Gowan said.
Analysts said Democratic and Republican administrations have a history of using — or not using — the Security Council on a case-by-case basis.
“It’s true that in terms of rhetoric the Republicans are more negative toward the U.N.,” he said. “But in fact, both Republican administrations often find the U.N. very useful and Democratic administrations often find it necessary to put the U.N. to one side in a crisis, so it’s hard to reduce overall U.S. attitudes toward the U.N. purely to partisan positions.”