At a time when 62% of Americans (according to a CBS poll) reject the idea of America intervening in Syria, and with Tea Party calls for a return to isolationism on the rise, those of us who embrace the idea of America actively engaging with the world were delighted with President Obama’s speech to the UN General Assembly.
Why? Because if you believe in the preservation of the international order that was so painstakingly put together after World War II, then you have to accept the reality that at the moment the United States is the only country in a position to unilaterally uphold that order. Isn’t that something we should all be happy about? I think if I phrase it like this, I will get more sympathy from readers: If there is going to be a superpower in the world, are we not fortunate that it is the United States and not any of the alternatives on offer?
We have seen the consequences when America will not act. It was deference and dithering from the Clinton administration that allowed Slobodan Milosevic to almost successfully annex Bosnia in his plans to create a Greater Serbia. A racist party in Rwanda assumed (correctly) that the world would be sufficiently disinterested in its internal affairs that it could carry out its own final solution to an ethnic problem, resulting in the butchering of 800,000 people in just over 100 days. In that episode, Clinton instructed that the US should veto a Czech resolution at the UN calling for an increase in peacekeepers in Rwanda.
We have also seen the success that can occur when America will take action. US-led NATO airstrikes (not approved by the UN) forced back Milosevic’s second attempt at genocide in Kosovo, and also precipitated his downfall, and imprisonment. America also took a leading role in calling for action to prevent a psychopathic slaughter of civilians in Benghazi, which also led to the downfall of the whack-job regime of Colonel Ghaddafi. The threat of military action after the use of chemical weapons in Syria has forced Russia to accept UN involvement, and may yet result in invitations from the prosecutor’s office at the ICC for Mr. Assad and his top lieutenants to visit The Hague. These are not small victories by any means, they are a vindication of the idea of upholding certain important principles of international law.
This is not arrogance or hubris. The president acknowledged the mistakes of previous administrations, telling the delegates that America was “wary of being accused of hypocrisy and inconsistency” when it came to US involvement in the Middle-East, but he assured those watching and listening that the US would be engaged in the region “for the long-haul.”
Given the outrageous crimes being committed by the Baathist regime in Syria against its own people, and the threat of Iran becoming a thermonuclear theocracy, we should all breathe a sigh of relief that America has not chosen this moment to shrink from very serious, and very real challenges, to international law.
I know and can make every argument about American imperialism there has been, and can give every example, from Chile to Vietnam. However, if we get stuck in the past, we will never move on and realize that the world is very different now. Look at the cruelest regimes in the world today: Iran, North Korea, Burma, Syria, North Sudan, and Zimbabwe, and you will find that all roads do not lead to Washington, but to Beijing and Moscow.
The president was clear. America isn’t going anywhere. He is as aware as any of us that America is now moving into a position where it will be one power among many rather than “the” superpower. However, while the US is still able, it will, where it can, uphold and enforce international law, regardless of the accusations that it faces. We should be prepared to hold the president to account for this, but we should not shrink from our responsibility for this either.