Commuters heading into Manhattan last week confronted electronic signs that flashed a warning; “UN GEN ASSEMBLY: GRIDLOCK ALERT.” But a midtown traffic jam was the least of it. At the United Nations itself, multiple crises collided, each claiming a moral right of way over the others. Climate change. Ukraine. Asylum seekers. Nuclear proliferation. Combating terrorism. Ebola. That deadly outbreak of disease in West Africa, overwhelming “the capabilities of any single state,” as observers said, was “the perfect crisis to show why the UN matters.” US Ambassador Samantha Power said, “The United Nations was built for challenges like this.”
But that was how hundreds of thousands of environmentalists felt as they gathered in New York ahead of the so-called UN Climate Summit, with which the global sessions opened. “The summit is intended to put climate change at the top of the international agenda,” as one activist said. But actually, only one thing can be at the top of an agenda, and, grave as the climate change crisis is, that issue dominated the week no more than Ebola did. Urgent world problems have simultaneously reached critical mass, yet each one’s catastrophic threat vied to cancel all the others out.
Then President Obama arrived. He offered his own catalog of crises in his stirring address to the General Assembly, yet when he personally chaired the Security Council leaders’ session — only the second time an American president has done so — he made it clear where the focus was for him. The president has gone to war. Having just launched a ferocious air campaign against the so-called Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq, and having sounded the call to arms of a large combat coalition that, crucially, included Arab nations, Obama insisted on the urgency of his actions. “If there was ever a challenge in our interconnected world that cannot be met by one nation alone, it is this. Terrorists crossing borders and threatening to unleash unspeakable violence.” Before the General Assembly he pledged that the United States would “work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
It was Obama’s martial fervor that seemed most notable, and his zealotry efficiently moved the new Mideast war to the top of the week’s troubling agenda. If there was a traffic jam of crises, one crisis would bull through them all: Cue the trumpets! After nearly a quarter century of misbegotten American interventions in what is now broadly counted as the Arab world’s historic, multi-phase, suicidal civil war, Washington had joined the fight again.
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Obama made the casus belli this time seem irresistible; the savage beheading of US journalists embodied it. Yet when had the prior provocations not seemed dire? Once again, a perverse but existentially minor enemy, posing no real threat to North America, had succeeded in drawing from Americans precisely the ill-considered reaction it wanted. And once again, the United States had put its faith in bombing from the air — a strategy that has only ever succeeded in unleashing ferociously unintended consequences. In this, the initiating engagement of the new American war, the Islamic State has its first victory.
It was as if, after a widely derided appearance before the United Nations a year ago, coming on the heels of his refusal to launch an air war against Syria for its use of chemical weapons, President Obama had something to prove. Mark Landler of The New York Times observed, “His remarks clearly seemed designed to get past months in which the president appeared visibly conflicted about the proper use of US military force in the Middle East — an ambivalence that opened him to criticism that he was feckless and irresolute.”
That criticism was wrong. The restraint that has characterized Obama’s leadership until now was anything but “feckless and irresolute.” His attempt to turn away from force was not rooted in ambivalence, but in a wiser vision. As his victory in eliminating Syria’s chemical arsenal showed, the refusal of war in a war-torn world can be the real exercise of power.
Yet when confronted with seemingly impossible conundrums, a gridlock of the moral imagination can make recourse to violent force seem clarifying and empowering. So Obama yields. But the outcome is sadly predictable. It is not only that war trumped the other grave problems at the United Nations last week. Environmental degradation, refugees, disease, resurgent nationalism, proliferation: Visceral American war-making will make everything worse. Again.