Last week, Russia and China obstructed the Obama administration’s Syria policy by vetoing an anti-Assad Security Council resolution backed by the Arab League, Britain, France, and the United States. As harmful as this defeat was in its immediate consequences, it may bode even worse for efforts to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Obama still seems not to grasp what motivates Russia and China, just as he apparently cannot com-prehend threats like Syria and Iran.
A little history. Before Council Resolution 1973 in 2011 authorized the use of force against Muammar Qaddafi’s murderous regime, Russia and China had been fastidious in opposing language that creative minds could stretch into approving military action. In reluctantly supporting economic sanctions against Iran and North Korea, for example, Moscow and Beijing assiduously rejected even indirect authority for striking the rogue states’ nuclear programs.
Unaccountably, however, they let their guard down on Libya. Perhaps believing NATO would confine itself to no-fly zones over threatened cities like Benghazi rather than overthrowing Qaddafi (the only real “humanitarian” solution), they abstained (along with India, Brazil, and Germany) rather than vetoing. Since a permanent member’s abstention is the functional equivalent of voting “yes,” assuming there are nine affirmative votes from others, Resolution 1973 was adopted.
As NATO’s Libya campaign quickly morphed into ousting Qaddafi, however, Russia and China made their dissatisfaction plain. Moscow had not erred so badly since 1950, when the Soviet Union boycotted the Security Council to protest Nationalist China holding Beijing’s seat rather than the Communists, thereby allowing authorization of a U.S.-led military force to repel North Korea’s invasion of the South. Obviously concerned not to make that mistake again, Russia and China were now fully alert to challenges to their client states. Syria proved to be the test case, provoking the double veto.
In addition, the unfolding Syria debacle has also revealed just how feckless the Obama administration’s distress with the Assad family dictatorship really was. From once eagerly seeking ever-closer relations with the Baath party thugs in Damascus, Obama has moved excruciatingly slowly to understanding that Syria is part of the Middle Eastern problem, not part of the solution.
Even when he acted on that long-delayed epiphany, Obama still believed the United Nations could somehow play a key role in bringing sweetness and light to Syria. But what started as a strong draft resolution—imposing significant economic sanctions on Syria, creating a partial weapons embargo, and unambiguously calling for Assad’s ouster—was steadily whittled away by Russian and Chinese contumacy. By the final Security Council vote on February 4, the text was a parody of its former self, and even that remaining hulk was holed and sunk by the disdainful vetoes.
The Obama administration was shocked, shocked that such things could happen. “What more do we need to know to act decisively in the Security Council?” complained Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later declaring the council to have been “neutered” and a “travesty.” U.N. ambassador Susan Rice pronounced herself “disgusted.” So much for the U.N. And so much for the highly touted, but now apparently misplaced “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations.
What will emerge from the wreckage of Obama’s Syria policy remains unclear, but Russia and China have demonstrated the U.N. will play no role contrary to their interests. Obama has failed to appreciate the geopolitical linkage between Assad’s regime and Tehran, and the protective ring thrown around both by Russia and China. Most significantly, whatever conclusions one draws about the Arab Spring—good or bad, optimistic or pessimistic—Syria is radically different from its other manifestations because of one central fact: the malign presence of Iran.
As the Syrian civilian death toll mounted while the council dithered, even full Arab League involvement did not sway Russia and China. On Iran, where Arab fears of a nuclear weapon essentially mirror Israel’s, Moscow and Beijing will prove to be equally unimpressed. Unilateral U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran’s central bank, and the EU’s new oil sanctions, have no chance of council endorsement, thus allowing nations like India and Turkey to go their merry, and unhelpful, ways.
Accordingly, there will be no dramatic Security Council action to administer the coup de grâce against Iran: no further U.N. sanctions; nothing that could be used to enforce existing sanctions militarily; and, most emphatically, nothing that even the cleverest wordsmith could argue authorized force to cripple the nuclear program, or to effect regime change in Iran.
And while the administration has been trumpeting Tehran’s increasing economic isolation, the reality is different, as the mullahs continue their three-decade-long quest to achieve a nuclear weapons capability. We now have no prospect through diplomacy or sanctions of preventing Iran from crossing the finish line essentially at a time of its choosing. In remarkably underreported Senate testimony about Iran’s nuclear program on January 31, the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, stated unambiguously: “The sanctions as imposed so far have not caused them to change their behavior or their policy.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has repeatedly said recently that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within a year. (In fact, from publicly available evidence, it could well be before that.)
Incredibly, Panetta also said two weeks ago there was a “strong likelihood” Israel would attack Iran’s nuclear program in the fast-approaching April-June period. Why would Panetta speak so openly about Israel’s potential timing? Because the administration believes that its private pressure on Israel not to act militarily is failing, and that the only option was to go public. Who knows what sensitive information Team Obama will next reveal: Israel’s flight plans to the Iranian targets? Israel’s order of battle?
So the double veto signals to Iran that Russia and China have its back in the Security Council, foreclosing more Obama administration play-acting on nuclear proliferation. And with Panetta’s anti-Israel comments, Obama’s mask is off: He fears an Israeli strike more than Tehran’s obtaining nuclear weapons.
This year could thus be critical. Will Iran (and, as a consequence, -others in the region) get nuclear weapons, or will someone step forward to take the only possible remaining action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran from happening: a preemptive military strike?
Since there is almost no chance that Obama will act, the pressure on Israel intensifies. While the spotlight last week was on the Security Council, the real action is increasingly in Israel’s “inner” national security cabinet. It is a dangerous and unpleasant place for Israel to be, but in the absence of American leadership, David needs to decide on his own whether to pick up his slingshot.
John Bolton, ambassador to the United Nations during 2005-06, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.