This week the United Kingdom, with the support of the U.S. and France, scrambled — in vain — to get the approval of the United Nations Security Council for a military strike on Syria.
I can certainly understand why some see this as a legal or political necessity. International law says that nations should seek approval of the Security Council before attacking other nations. That means if the United States attacks Syria without U.N. approval, President Obama will open himself to the charge from the left of being even more of an international war criminal than George W. Bush, who at least could plausibly claim U.N. Security Council support for the Iraq War.
But if you think such accusations are nonsense — as I do — then what’s left is the political case. This argument holds that we must placate a poltergeist called “world opinion.” But this will-o’-the-wisp is as fickle as it is elusive. Obama has been chasing it in the Middle East for years, and he’s less popular there than Bush was in 2008. In Europe, where Obama remains popular on the German and Belgian streets, it’s hard to point to an area where popularity has yielded concessions to Obama’s agenda.
A related reason, we’re told, to seek U.N. approval is that other nations need it if they’re going to join our coalition. Fair enough. But there’s often a Catch-22 here in that it’s hard to get a coalition without U.N. approval, and it’s hard to get U.N. approval without a coalition. One way to cut through the Gordian knot is to ask, “What’s so great about coalitions?”
Sure, it’s always better to have friends and allies pitching in — many hands make light work, and all that. But if something is in America’s vital national interest, it doesn’t cease to be because Belize or Botswana won’t lend a hand. Posses aren’t more moral in proportion to the number of white hats who sign up.
Somehow this basic fact was lost in the last decade or so. According to liberals in the Bush years, the essence of wise foreign policy boiled down to: “It’s better to be wrong in a big group than to be right alone.”
Anyway, what I really don’t get is the investment of moral authority in the Security Council or the U.N. generally. The permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are France, Great Britain, the United States, China, and Russia. The other nations of the 15-member body rotate on and off the council. They also don’t get a veto the way the permanent five do. But, for the record, they currently are: Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, South Korea, Rwanda, and Togo.
Now, taking nothing away from the great and glorious accomplishments of the Luxembourgeois, Togoans, and Rwandans — never mind the invaluable insights the Pakistanis have into what constitute America’s vital interests — I am at a near-total loss to see how gaining their approval for a measure makes that measure more worthwhile. If you believe Bill Clinton was right to bomb the Balkans to stop ethnic cleansing (which I do), do you think that action was any less moral or right because he did it without the support of the U.N. and therefore — according to international law — illegally? I don’t.
And then there are the permanent five. It’s worth remembering they have their seats on the council simply by virtue of the fact they were the great powers at the end of World War II. One irony is that the people who routinely insist the U.S. must seek approval from the U.N. are also the sorts of people who blithely opine that “might doesn’t make right.” Well, the council’s authority is derived entirely from the idea that might does make right. More important, by what perverted moral calculus does the approval of Russia (never mind the old Soviet Union) or China confer moral legitimacy? Without reading the full bill of indictment (the gulags, the mass murder, the invasions, etc.), suffice it to say that China and Russia’s opinion of what is right and legal counts less than Miley Cyrus’s verdict on what is tasteful.
But there is a deliberative body that has significant moral, political, and legal authority when it comes to the conduct of American foreign policy. It’s called “Congress.” You could look it up.
— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at [email protected], or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.