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Bush’s ‘unilateralism’ vs. Obama’s ‘multilateralism’

May 23, 2010

President Barack Obama has stated that in today’s world there is no room for unilateral action and that there must be a ‘multilateral’ consensus before taking any action. This statement is obviously with reference to the prolonged Iranian question. There are people who might welcome this stance. I agree that in a perfect world one could strive for building consensus. Ideally, an international consensus on the Iranian question would be the desired aim. Sadly, we are not living in an ideal world. There are countries and there are people with diverse interests and viewpoints. To expect all to agree on something as contentious as the clandestine Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons is asking too much from the international community. This is a reality check of sorts for President Barack Obama. It was easy for everyone to run down President Bush, but with all his failings, the man had the guts to take hard decisions. I do not remember as to how many times he pointed out in his speeches that he will not hesitate in taking hard decisions. Yet we did not realize what the man was saying. It is only now when President Obama is faced with making hard choices and is found hiding behind ‘inability of the international community to build consensus’ do we realize that Bush’s decisiveness is sorely being missed.

I commend President Obama on having taken the challenge on two fronts – the health care bill and the financial bill. I believe that while the health care bill will benefit the American population only, the financial bill should help check graft in the financial sector and make markets more stable worldwide.  However, on the question on Iran, I am not sure Obama is making the right choices. Iran is in our neighborhood and while it is true that India has very good relations with Iran, we would be very uncomfortable with a nuclear Iran. The security and the stability of the region are at stake. While it is true that Washington has summarily rejected the Iran, Turkey, Russia initiative forwarded by Lula de Silva, and called for more sanctions but from the present utterances of the American president it appears that Obama has serious reservations about taking any punitive action against Tehran without an explicit passage of a resolution to the effect in the Security Council. If only wishes were horses. Welcome to the real world Mr. President. The Security Council will never be able to pass any resolution mandating the use of force to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. China and Russia will not allow any such resolution to be passed. In today’s scenario even if Russia acquiescence’s, Beijing will not hesitate in using its veto power to nullify any such moves. Obama has been to Beijing as has Hillary Clinton more than once but the Chinese have stonewalled all overtures.

It was very easy for the world to castigate and make light of Bush’s decisions. The reality was that he had little leeway. He had to make hard choices. If he were to go alone, he was prepared to do so. The Iraq question had to be tackled then and he had no choice. And by the way, Bush’s ‘unilateralism’ really was a coalition of four nations – US, Britain, Australia and Poland. Later other nations joined in. To expect Russia and China to be a part of an international force that ensures Iran does not go nuclear is living in an unreal world. There will be European allies that will be with the US irrespective of what decision Washington takes. This time over, there may be more nations ready to go along with the US were Obama ready to make hard choices. Nations like France and Germany will be more than ready to chip in, looking at the success that was the Iraq invasion. In that Obama has the luxury of the success that was Iraq from the western point of view and there will be more multilateral support for punitive action this time around than what Bush had during the 2003 period. In that George Bush has already made things easier for Obama. It is just a matter of will and realizing the gravity of the situation.

The much criticized UN Resolution 1441 was the only legitimacy that the Bush administration could garner from the Security Council. Resolution 1441 was discussed extensively during the Iraq Inquiry. For Obama to expect a clear, unequivocal resolution from the Security Council for military action against Iran will be asking too much from a world body that has seldom come together on international issues, and such tricky one as a nuclear Iran will invariably elicit varied responses. The North Korean attack on South Korean vessel where more than 45 South Koreans lost their lives has now been established. Can the US expect the Security Council to pass a resolution against North Korea? The international community can do very little.

The stakes in the Iranian question are high. It is important that the Middle East remains nuclear weapons free. If Tehran has it, Riyadh will go overboard in trying to have it as will Syria and others. Proliferation will be a real problem then. Prevarication can be suicidal in such a scenario. Already a lot of time has been lost. The chances of Tehran getting close to detonation are very real. Once they detonate and declare themselves nuclear weapons’ state, the international community will have a hard time taking the clock back.

Already hawks in Tel Aviv are talking about the importance of taking Beijing into confidence on the critical Iran issue. There is a school of thought which believes that depending too much on Washington to ensure security of the region is living in the past. They believe that China has much leverage in the Middle East and especially with Iran. It will be unwise not to start a diplomatic initiative with Beijing to ensure that the tricky Iranian question is addressed before it is too late. Clearly, Israel is missing the decisiveness of Bush. But they are realists and will make sure they get what they want, and if that means roping in the Chinese, then so be it.

If such a thing happens, and the US stands marginalized and refuses to take the lead, its undisputed leadership in world affairs will be seriously in question. Prevarication is not the solution to this problem. This is not the time to talk about ethics. Perhaps the president is taking his Nobel Peace Prize too seriously. There are times when one has to go to war for peace. The Afghan campaign may not have been a thundering success on the ground, but as President Bush remarked during his trip to New Delhi last year, there has been no attack on America since. A pre-emptive strike is perhaps the answer to ensuring a nuclear free Middle East. The worst case scenario will be if Israel ‘unilaterally’ decides to strike at the various nuclear installations in Iran. That will be a real embarrassment for President Obama and the US and any such strike could have far reaching ramifications.

Addendum: Why regime change in Tehran is important: There are five reasons why a regime change in Tehran is desirable for world peace and stability:

1. To check nuclear proliferation and address security issues of the region.

2. A pliable moderate regime in Tehran will be a strategic asset for the west.

3. A moderate, modern democracy in Iran will help check the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This may also have a positive effect in its eastern neighbourhood where both Afghanistan and Pakistan are trying unsuccessfully to check the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. This could check terrorism around the world. A regime change in Tehran and a truly democratic set up will help in the fight against terrorism.

4. A progressive Iran could in the medium and long term help catapult the world economy to greater heights.

5. A moderate, democratic Iran will mean greater peace in Iraq and the Sunni nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey etc. can be made to understand the need to leave alone Iraq. This could be the exit strategy, safe in the knowledge that it was a job well done.

While Bush’s reasons for invading Iraq were not too credible and later it was established that Saddam had no WMD’s in the case of Iran the development of nuclear plants near Natanz and Qom are very tangible and credible evidence of Tehran’s clandestine nuclear program. If Tehran refuses to listen to international calls for a unilateral moratorium then a punitive action should be endorsed by the international community without much reservation. But that does not mean that there will be unanimity in the Security Council. All it means is that such a step will not be totally unacceptable as was the Iraq invasion.

Lastly, a multilateral consensus is required on some issues – like global warming. One cannot shove a green way of life down any nations throat.

Update 24.05.2010: Hillary Clinton along with a high level 200 strong delegation has descended in Beijing on a strategic and economic summit with China. Various issues will be discussed among them will be the undervaluation of the yuan, the Iran question and the problems with North Korea, and not necessarily in that order.

Update 25.05.2010: The Iran nuclear program and its ramifications are extreme can be gauged from how Israel looks at the problem. Jerusalem Post has reported the following:

Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor said America’s standing in the world will be determined by whether or not Iran attains nuclear weapons. Meridor, at a Jerusalem press conference, said it was more than just a matter of Iran achieving nuclear capability. Also at stake, he said, are the balance of power in the world and America’s international standing.

There will be significant implications for the world order if, after the struggle over Iran’s nuclear program, it ends up with nuclear weapons, Meridor said, adding that the impact would also be felt on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The Palestinians have one eye toward us and America, and one eye on Iran,” he said. “A victory for Iran is a victory for Hamas.”

The last observation is the most chilling – ‘a victory for Iran is a victory for Hamas’. Let us not forget that the constant Kassam rocket attacks from Palestinian enclaves had their origin in Iran. These small contraptions came from Iran. A nuclear Iran could be a real headache for Israel.

A lot is at stake for the USA too.

Update 26.05.2010: The Chinese have stone walled Hillary Clinton and her entourage on both North Korea and Iran. The proposed sanctions against Iran have also been watered down. As for the revision of yuan, the Chinese have indicated that they will review the value of their currency when they are ready.  The Iran question is the one that bothers Washington the most and the lack of cooperation from Beijing has made it difficult for Obama to move forward.


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