US making strategic use of UN to build case

US making strategic use of UN to build case

During his speech at the opening session of the UN General Assembly as well as when advocating for the binding resolution on foreign fighters, US President Barack Obama shifted some attention from the short-term threat posed by ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) to the longer-term goals of attacking extremist ideology at its source.

And while analysts say the President largely hit the right notes in his speech, they remain sceptical about how effective the call would be across the Muslim world. Many similarly questioned if the Security Council resolution compelling nations to crack down on the flow of foreign fighters to terrorist groups would have the desired impact - even if the council voted unanimously to support it.

At times on Wednesday, Mr Obama appeared to almost be lecturing the Muslim world about the need to do more to counter the spread of extremist ideology among the young.

And many believed he staked his personal reputation on getting a resolution that would do little to change the status quo. In fact, in order to avoid vetoes from China or Russia, most experts believe the resolution has been stripped of anything too ambitious.

"I think that many states will make real efforts to stop the flow of foreign fighters to and from the Middle East, but more out of self- interest than respect for the UN," said Mr Richard Gowan of the Centre of International Cooperation at New York University.

Similarly, Mr Elbridge Colby, the Robert Gates fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said: "It's hard to see [the General Assembly speech] having a direct impact, the President may not have a lot of credibility among the leaders of the Arab world."

But if there was so little to gain, why do it at all?

"I wouldn't be surprised if there was some degree of exasperation on the part of the administration and the President... that many countries there have not been pulling their weight," said Mr Colby, adding that the aim might ultimately have been to simply raise awareness of the issue on a global stage.

"Using the UN General Assembly, using the Security Council as a public bully pulpit, a way of amplifying the message and putting it through a body that is recognised internationally - it's probably part of their thinking.

"Even if you don't get the ideal, you elevate the issue. Maybe you will get something out of the UN Security Council process that is something if not everything that you want," he said.

Some also suggested that the decision to push through the Security Council resolution was a largely strategic move to gain some sort of international endorsement for the US' mission against ISIS.

"The Security Council discussion of foreign fighters has offered some extra legitimacy to the American actions in Iraq and Syria," said Mr Gowan.

Realising it would not be able to secure any sort of UN resolution approving strikes in Syria, the US may have gone for the next best thing: a general condemnation of ISIS.

Mr Brett Schaefer, senior research fellow in international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation, put it like this: "President Obama and his supporters want to have international approval for their efforts, which is most visible in a UN Security Council resolution.

"Some of the motivation is ideological, a nod to their stated commitment to multilateral action. Some of the motivation is to avoid charges of hypocrisy because President Obama was very critical of president (George W.) Bush for failing to get UN Security Council support for the Iraq war. Some of the motivation is practical, because some countries will base the extent of their support on whether or not there is a UN Security Council resolution."

This article was first published on Sep 26, 2014.
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