Where Are We on the UN's 70th Anniversary?
11 November 2015
By Eyad Abu Shakra
Many were looking forward to the meeting between US President Barack Obama
and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the United Nations earlier this
week, as the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary. There are many topics that
deserve discussion, most of which are extremely serious and have dangerous
Definitely the UN itself is now in need of rejuvenation after its obvious
failure to deal with several cases of international impasse caused primarily
by spite, intentional obstruction, and the abject disregard for the
''international legitimacy'' practiced by major powers through the power of
their vetoes. This is ironic, as the UN is supposed to embody this
''international legitimacy'' and entrench it.
While there may have been several problems on the agenda during the Obama–Putin
meetings, the Syrian crisis was at the forefront as it has generated other
contentious and urgent problems including encouraging the new ''Kremlin
Tsar'' to annex Crimea and interfere in Eastern Ukraine the moment he
realized the White House was basically ''all talk no action.'' Another urgent
problem has been the suffering of millions of displaced Syrians, tens of
thousands of whom have been driven by despair to take to the seas in the hope
of finding refuge in Europe.
As time has proven, the Syrian problem has been inextricably linked to Iran's
nuclear deal with world powers, the ''sudden'' emergence of the Islamic State
of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the much-touted ''New Middle East'' project
with all its ethnic, religious, and sectarian traps and minefields. However,
any observer monitoring Washington's reactions is left confused as to whether
this derives from excessive stupidity or some kind of malignant conspiracy.
Throughout the UN's history, the absence of mutual deterrence among the great
powers frequently led to war and immense human suffering. In fact, the UN was
created at the end of the Second World War which broke out basically because
aggression was not deterred. The now infamous paper waved by then-British
prime minister Neville Chamberlain, after returning from a meeting with the
Nazi führer Adolf Hitler, has become a symbol of the futility of trusting
despots, megalomaniacs, and totalitarian and imperialist dictators. Then, the
policy of appeasement adopted by some Western powers in the face of the
militarism of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperialist Japan was a
perfect recipe for war.
Eventually, 70 years ago, the international community decided to establish a
''new world order'' represented by a replacement to the defunct League of
Nations brought down by the Second World War. After that, mutual deterrence
between East and West managed for decades to prevent devastating nuclear
confrontations, and gave rise to the Cold War policy of Containment as well
as limited regional wars. Thus, just as US President John Kennedy was able to
deter the USSR on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Communist camp succeeded
through People's Liberation Wars in scoring historical victories in Indochina
(Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia).
Later, however, balance of terror and deterrence was shaken twice.
First, in the late 1970s when then-US President Jimmy Carter failed to deal
decisively with Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which strengthened both
Muslim and Christian radicalism. Khomeini's rhetoric, slogans, and attempts
to ''export'' his Shi'ite revolution provoked unease and hostility in the
Sunni Muslim world, and revolutionary Iran's sponsored hostage-taking caused
bitter rage and ultra-conservative political reactions that gifted Ronald
Reagan, the most hawkish Republican leader, a landslide electoral victory in
the 1980 US presidential election against incumbent Jimmy Carter.
Subsequently, Reagan occupied the White House for eight years throughout
which his aggressive policies changed the world.
The second time the balance was shaken came a few years later when USSR
leader Mikhail Gorbachev decided to play Chamberlain's role with Hitler; so
Gorbachev embarked on an appeasement policy with Reagan, who in 1983
described the USSR as the ''Evil Empire.'' The outcome of Gorbachev's policy
was catastrophic for the Soviet state and its institutions, which collapsed
and gave rise to a new ''unipolar'' world led by America, in which extremist
rightwing and religious parties became the main beneficiaries from the demise
of the global Left.
Today, many—rightly or wrongly—believe that Barack Obama represents nothing
but an extension of Chamberlain's naïveté, Carter's utopianism, and
Gorbachev's mindlessness; while Putin combines the aggressiveness of
Khomeini, Hitler, and Reagan, as well as the decisiveness of JFK.
The Russian leader, a former KGB official, is a pragmatic and serious man who
knows exactly what he wants, finds his opponents' weak points and wastes no
time in exploiting them. He is now confident that he has a unique opportunity
to blackmail an aloof, out of touch, and insincere US president, who has
chosen to place all his eggs in the basket of his strategic agreement with
Iran, which is an armed, aggressive, and theocratic regional power. Indeed,
President Obama, so preoccupied with the US's long-term relations with Iran,
seems uninterested in the geopolitical and humanitarian repercussions of the
Given the above, what Vladimir Putin is doing in Syria today is the logical
result of what Barack Obama has refused to do for more than four and a half
years. It is the natural outcome of Washington's meaningless ''redlines''
that never stopped Bashar Al-Assad's massacres, the ridiculous promises to
arm and train Syrian opposition fighters, and the stubborn and repeated
refusal to enforce ''safe havens'' which are the only means capable of saving
the Syrian people and encouraging defections from the regime's army and
Furthermore, following Washington's inaction against Iran's blatant military
intervention and enforced population exchanges in Syria, unperturbed Russia
has now joined the battle on the ground to save the Assad regime after it has
lost control of most of the country despite Iranian and Russian support.
Back to New York. I reckon it would be silly to expect any serious shift in
Obama's policy toward Syria, and subsequently Iraq and Lebanon, especially,
after Washington's endorsement of Moscow's approach that makes ''fighting
ISIS terror'' the top priority there.
Finally, as far as the Friends of Syria are concerned—namely those among them
who are rushing to drop the precondition of Assad's removal for any political
settlement—one hopes they do not discover too late that keeping Assad and
cooperating with his regional backers were the main sources of despair,
spite, and extremism.
Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been
with the newspaper since 1978.