John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Turmoil in the Middle East has exposed the vulnerabilities of President Barack Obama's listless foreign policy. As Iran closes in on its nuclear prize and props up Assad's bloody regime in Syria, the United States has the opportunity to deal a crippling blow to its oldest, most dangerous enemy in the region. U.S. military strikes could topple Tehran's close allies in Damascus and destroy the mullahs' nuclear infrastructure, potentially ushering in more democratic regimes that would be at peace with their neighbors.
But instead of seizing the initiative, the White House has wrapped itself in a web of international law and institutions that have brought only paralysis and indecision. From the top down, administration officials have suggested that they need the blessing of the U.N. before they can use force to advance American interests in the Middle East. "For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake," Obama recently said about Syria. "What happened in Libya was we mobilized the international community, had a U.N. Security Council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation."
Libya taught the administration the wrong lessons. What the White House sees as a successful strategy of acting as part of a United Nations coalition was in fact a near-disaster. Waiting on the U.N. Security Council for approval of airstrikes allowed Muammar Qaddafi's regime to come within a day or two of wiping out the Libyan resistance. The delay reduced our ability to exert influence on the new regime that has emerged since. The Obama administration hopes to reassure those who distrust American unilateralism by submerging our national interests into those of an undefined world community. The result is that America still carries the main burden of maintaining international peace and stability, but with a loss of speed, flexibility, and decisiveness.
Obama is now repeating this mistake, but this time the stakes are dramatically higher. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that they intend to prevent, not contain, Iranian nuclear weapons. Obama, for example, has warned, "I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say." He promises to use "all elements of American power," not just political, diplomatic, and economic pressure, but, "yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency." But rather than prepare the nation and our allies for the consequences of a military strike, the White House has placed its hopes in a scheme of escalating U.N. economic sanctions that may delay but cannot halt Iran's march toward nuclear weapons.
Obama's reliance on the crutch of the United Nations only underscores the deeper paralysis of his foreign policy. He has not just shrunk from dangers, but has passively neglected opportunity. His administration has rushed for the exits in Iraq even as our troops defeated the insurgency and midwifed democratic government. In Afghanistan, the White House has ordered a hasty and premature drawdown just as a surge of forces has put the Taliban on the defensive. Obama's unnecessary concessions on nuclear weapons in the New START treaty and his unilateral withdrawal of an antiballistic missile system in Eastern Europe have not "reset" relations with Russia. Vladimir Putin's reelection promises a continuation of Moscow's frosty American policy. China continues its rise to great military power status; Obama responds with more talk about a "pivot" toward Asia but stations a few thousand Marines in Australia.
The upcoming November elections present Republicans with an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast with Obama's withdrawal of American leadership from the world. They can begin by making a powerful political and legal case for unilateral military action against the dictators in Syria and Iran. The Assad regime continues to wage war on the Syrian people, with some estimates reaching 10,000 deaths and a hundred thousand refugees. It supports terrorist groups arrayed against Israel, it has attempted to dominate Lebanon, and it served as a conduit for insurgents who journeyed to Iraq to kill American soldiers. An American no-fly zone, combined with selected strikes and military aid for rebels, could rescue millions from the boot of a vicious dictatorship and remove a regime that has threatened and attacked its neighbors and destabilized the region. Regime change would serve larger U.S. interests too: It would blunt Iran's campaign for allies and remove an enemy in a strategic location in the Middle East.