Sept. 11 2013 08:58 AM

For the U.N. to be useful, the one-country veto must go

Bashar al-Assad
Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom

Recently on Twitter, some of our friends have suggested running down the positions of San Diego County's five representatives in Congress on whether the U.S. should bomb Syria for gassing its people with chemical weapons. All five have made statements; in case you missed them: Democrats Scott Peters and Susan Davis have said the matter needs rigorous debate. Republican Darrell Issa said Barack Obama had an uphill climb to convince him that we should attack. Democrat Juan Vargas is gung-ho about showing Syria who's boss. And Duncan Hunter says the president absolutely should not hit Syria.

Funny how members of different political parties shape their position depending on the party that occupies the White House.

For our part, as usual, we find ourselves at odds with Vargas. When considering what to do about Syria, we start from a firm position of no action. For us, Obama has an extraordinarily high hurdle to clear in convincing us that we should bomb another country. From there, it just gets more and more blurry; upholding international norms against the use of chemical or biological weapons, particularly against innocent civilians, is a compelling case. However, also compelling is the case for caution, because it's not clear that bombing Damascus would achieve its intended goal, and unintended consequences should be expected with military action overseas.

This is why we were so encouraged on Monday when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offhandedly said Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, could avoid being bombed by handing over his chemical-weapons program to international monitors and the Russians responded by actually putting such a plan in motion.

As devotees of The West Wing, which might be history's greatest TV show, we imagined a Jed Bartlet-esque scheme: Obama or Kerry, working with the Russians, the Chinese and the Syrians through back channels, would let slip an unlikely scenario in which Syria gives up its weapons and the Russians would take credit for making it happen, allowing Assad to avoid looking like he's following orders from the Americans—as well as avoiding being blown to pieces—letting the Russians look like peacemakers and giving Obama a way out of a political mess at home amid overwhelming public opposition to bombing.

However it happened, China and Iran immediately signaled support, Syria agreed to the deal and France offered to draft a United Nations resolution. The Americans reacted with cautious optimism while insisting that Syria would never have considered such a deal absent a threat of extreme violence.

The arrangement hit a speed bump Tuesday when the Russians balked at language in France's draft that stated unambiguously that the Syrian government was responsible for an Aug. 21 chemical attack that killed more than 1,400 people.

The United Nations is where this kind of debate should be playing out in any circumstance. Though it happens frequently, Americans should never be in a position of fighting among themselves over whether to intervene unilaterally in someone else's war.

The U.N. is still broken. It was broken during Rwanda. It was broken during Yugoslavia. It remains broken. We're no international-affairs experts, but it seems to us that the structure of the U.N. renders it incapable of doing anything in fights where Russia and China's interests are in conflict with the West's interests. There are 15 voting members of the U.N. Security Council, but the five permanent members—the U.S., Great Britain, France, Russia and China—have unilateral veto power over substantive U.N. resolutions. This structure has been in place since 1946 and seems almost comically outdated in the context of today's world.

Refereeing between warring nations should be a function of the international community through a democratic process—ideally a speedy one. Being the self-appointed policeman should be left to the United States, simply because it has the most firepower. If a rogue government mass-murders its own citizens, the U.N. Security Council should quickly assemble, vote on a resolution proposed by one of its members and, if approved by a majority, action should be taken against that rogue country. As long as a single country can thwart international intervention, the U.N will continue to be a busted tool.

On Tuesday, Obama should have been working on myriad pressing domestic concerns rather than preparing a speech aimed at convincing the American public that the U.S. must punish Syria because no one else can or will. 

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