Monday’s presidential debate no doubt will center on the Middle East, as it should. President Obama has stood by while Iran has closed in on nuclear weapons, Syria has massacred its own civilians and al Qaeda terrorists killed our ambassador to Libya. After all the blood and treasure spent in Iraq, we hastily left instead of maintaining a stabilizing presence, and we are following an arbitrary withdrawal schedule in Afghanistan just when our brave troops are achieving success.
We have the chance to strike at two of our most dangerous enemies: Syria and Iran. A no-fly-zone and military aid could overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus, and precision strikes, while costly, could destroy Iran’s weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs — which could even produce regimes that, while not Jeffersonian democracies, would pursue friendlier relations with their neighbors and the United States.
But instead of seizing this opening, the Obama administration has tied American national security to the dictates of the United Nations in a way that no previous president, Republican or Democrat, ever has. In Libya, the United States refused to act to overthrow the Gadhafi regime until the U.N. Security Council had given its blessing. The delay enabled Moammar Gadhafi’s regime to come within one or two days of snuffing out the rebellion. In Syria, administration officials such as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta have told Congress that intervention is off the table because the U.N. has not approved it. With Iran, the administration has relied on U.N.-approved sanctions, which have harmed the Iranian economy but have not deterred the mullahs from pursuing their nuclear prize.
Idolatry of the U.N. presents a stark dividing line between the candidates that should become clear in Monday’s debate. Mitt Romney can provide the justification for vigorous American action — unilateral if need be — against Syria and Iran. Syria supports Hezbollah, it has occupied Lebanon, and it helped Iraqi insurgents kill American soldiers. Regime change not only would save thousands of Syrian civilians, it would stop an aggressive actor from destabilizing the region and cut off Iran’s efforts to spread its influence in the Arab world. Iran not only pursues nuclear weapons, which could lead to WMD proliferation and a nuclear arms race with its neighbors, but it has spent the past three decades supporting terrorism and attempting to upend the regional balance of power. It has threatened to destroy Israel and attack its neighbors, close the Strait of Hormuz, interfere in Iraq’s transition to democracy and even plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has wrapped itself in a straitjacket of international institutions and laws that seek to prevent our freedom of action and subordinate American sovereignty to the whims of “the international community.” This not only paralyzes American initiative but tethers our national interest to a failed experiment. As the United Nations enters its sixth decade, it suffers from a crisis of ineffectiveness and corruption. It failed to decide on the use of force in Iraq. It then failed to prevent the United States and its coalition of allies from invading Iraq anyway. It failed to avert corruption in its administration of the Iraqi oil-for-food program. It failed to protect basic human rights when U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo and other African countries engaged in the sexual abuse of children. It also failed by standing by idly while Rwanda was rent by genocide; Serbia killed thousands in its campaign of ethnic cleansing; and Darfur experienced starvation, disease, rape and at least 400,000 deaths. The United Nations’ greatest mission — to respond to “any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression” — has proved its greatest failure.
The U.N. Charter system has never really worked. Instead of its own troops and weapons, the United Nations must rely on the good will of its members. Even the possibility of decision, without the reality of troops, is remote because of the power of the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China — to veto any intervention. China and Russia are authoritarian regimes that generally oppose intervention into what they consider “internal” affairs, especially the repression of political and economic freedoms. Nations like the United States and its allies that accept the higher responsibility for maintaining peace and advancing free-market democracy become lawbreakers. The U.N. has become a defense bar for dictators.
Today, the charter and its obsolete procedures ignore the fact that the modern world faces problems worse than war. Failed states, massive human rights disasters, rogue nations pursuing weapons of mass destruction and international terrorist groups all threaten greater harm than those of military interventions. Turmoil in the Middle East has exposed the vulnerabilities of Mr. Obama’s idolatry of the United Nations. In the past month, terrorist attacks against U.S. diplomatic compounds sprang up in Libya, killing our ambassador and three other Americans. Attacks also occurred in Egypt and Yemen. Based on false intelligence, Mr. Obama blamed the attacks on a YouTube video made by a private American citizen. Weeks later, we learned that the attacks were planned acts of terrorism and not spontaneous protests. The president, as seen at the second presidential debate, still cannot explain the situation.
The Obama administration hopes to reassure those who distrust American power by subordinating our national interests to those of an undefined world community. Mr. Obama hopes the United Nations and other international institutions can help tame America, rendering it an ordinary nation that is no different from the other great powers. The result is that America still carries the burden of maintaining world peace and stability but with a loss of speed, flexibility and decisiveness. Both the United States and the world will suffer for it.
John Yoo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law, served in the Justice Department under President George W. Bush and is author most recently of “Taming Globalization: International Law, the U.S. Constitution, and the New World Order” (Oxford, 2012).