Richard Butler. Obama transformed?

Oct 7, 2014

The jingoistic pressures applied to the media, commentators, academics, policy advisors in order to contain their commentary on the US’ illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, have been in evidence again following President Obama’s decision to commence war on ISIL. This time, however those pressures have been significantly smaller. Then it took almost three years before it was considered acceptable to question the operation. It has now taken only some three weeks for doubts and serious questions to be voiced and, published in mainstream media.

Why, what’s happened?

A decline in US patriotism, or belief in seeking military solutions to complex foreign policy problems, is nowhere discernible. What is readily visible however is the change in the President. This appears to have been widely noticed.

The President swept to office 6 years ago on the promise of an end to the US’ “wars of choice”. He pledged a foreign policy based on cooperation with others, consultation and diplomacy rather than coercion, respect for international law.

He repeated this promise at the United Nations. He went to Cairo and addressed the Muslim world in terms of amity and tolerance, and he went to Prague and voiced his commitment to a world without nuclear weapons. The Nobel Committee promptly awarded him the Peace Prize.

Last week, he returned to the United Nations and pledged war on ISIL because he said it constituted “a network of death”, perhaps echoing George W Bush’s now infamous “ axis of evil” remarks to justify his actions in Iraq and Afghanistan – the very “wars of choice” rejected by Obama.

In spite of the clear provisions of the UN Charter, which requires authorization by the Security Council for the actions now being taken, and the requirement of the US Constitution for Congress to declare war, he has rejected both legal obligations.

Congress has ducked a decision on the matter for now, as midterm elections are due in a month. They appear to be unwilling to have their vote on the war subjected to scrutiny in the electorate. In Australia, Prime Minister Abbott has sent Australian forces to the war, repeating President Obama’s justification for this action; that ISIL is a murderous group, which is of course true, but he has not attempted to explain precisely why                    Australia should enter the fight, half a world away. He has refused to permit a parliamentary debate on his decision, presumably because he, like the Congress, would not welcome such scrutiny.

Naturally, the concerns being expressed about current policy decisions do not ignore or sweep aside the criminality of ISIL. Rather, the focus has been on the key questions: where did all this come from, exactly whose problem is it, what exactly is ISIL, how do they get their funds and weapons, what will be achieved by the bombing campaign, how will it end, will it end, what will happen in Iraq, Syria, the wider Middle East; to name only a very few of the major questions at issue. And, it must be emphasized, the legal aspects of the current actions are not merely academic. They touch upon the structure and fabric of both international relations and the conduct of governments, especially those of popular democracies.

In addition to the need for answers to the key questions on the operation, we need to know what now motivates the President of the United States, in his newly assumed role of leader of the new, allegedly vital, global, battle.

It surely cannot simply be the beheadings. This would take a concession to populism and vengeance into absurd irrationality in policy formulation. We need to know what constituency President Obama is addressing. Its certainly not the Nobel Prize Committee.

He seems to continue to recognize that American voters don’t want another war, but he assesses that they do want action on ISIL and the Caliphate. Is this the fact. Do they?

He has the job to lead, not simply follow, and leadership would begin by telling the people and their representatives, the Congress, what exactly the plan is, beyond the aspiration to “degrade and destroy” ISIL, and, why it is now America’s fight and by extension, those he is calling on to join America in the fight. A telephone call, or two, to Tony Abbott should not be sufficient.

The latter contentions raise the largest question of all; that of external intervention in the affairs of States, in this case those of the Middle East. There are strict rules in international law setting the conditions under which such intervention can be considered licit. There are sound reasons for this, as the sorry history of western intervention in the Middle East attests. Many have asserted that the rise of ISIL is, at least in some measure, a consequence of such interventions.

The only external intervention in the Middle East, during the last 30 years, which was licit was that to expel Iraq from Kuwait. That action was legal because it was authorized by the Security Council. In the ISIL case, the reason being given for the current interventions in Iraq and Syria, is that if ISIL is not defeated, its presence in those two countries will harm us. The validity of this claim is a matter of speculation. So, it would be best if this were more fully explained, including how precisely the objective will be achieved and when it might be considered that what is at issue is within the responsibility of the States directly affected.

Finally, on nuclear weapons. In his Prague speech President Obama said the US has a “moral responsibility” to seek the “security of a world without nuclear weapons”. Yet, he recently authorized an immense expansion and revitalization of the US nuclear weapons arsenal, costing some 3 trillion dollars. This appears to kiss goodbye to any further reduction in nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.

The President would, indeed, appear to be transformed and if so, this will affect us all.

As a footnote, the Russians are also expanding their nuclear force. Do they both inwardly lament the passing of the Cold War and its nuclear arms race? Another subject, for another time.

Richard Butler is a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and Executive Chairman of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq.


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