The Saudis' Not-So-Principled Jab at the UN

Maybe some other country should adopt Saudi Arabia's principled refusal to taking a seat on the United Nations Security Council -- just not the Saudis.

Maybe some other country should adopt Saudi Arabia's principled refusal to taking a seat on the United Nations Security Council -- just not the Saudis.

You can't argue with the failure they are trying to highlight: The deadlock between the U.S. and Russia over intervening in Syria has made the UN powerless to do its job, which is to save lives.

Security Council authorization for a muscular UN peace-making mission might in 2011 have saved the Syria from disintegration and civil war. Instead, we have more than 100,000 dead, at least 2 million refugees and 5 million people internally displaced. Not to mention the worst chemical weapons attack in decades.

Yet, with more than two years to develop hindsight, who was at fault? Certainly the Russians bear some responsibility, having blocked action from the start, when Syria was a clear case of a regime opening fire on its unarmed citizens. But the Saudis -- along with the Turks, the U.S. and others -- were convinced that Syria's Alawite president, Bashar al-Assad would not long survive a rebellion by the 70 percent of Syria's population that is Sunni Muslim. The revolutions of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were still fresh. The Saudis saw a rich opportunity to weaken its regional rival Iran, for whom Assad was a vital ally.

No UN mission could have been agreed to without a political framework, which would have had to put Assad at the table, and the Saudis weren't going to call for that. So they share the fault.

The UN's failure isn't new, just depressing. During the entire Cold War, the Security Council was able toapprove only 17 peacekeeping missions. Since 1990, it has approved 51 out of hundreds of good candidates. So as bad as things are, the UN has become more active, with higher expectations set, than it once was.

Setting hypocrisy issues aside, how could the Saudis best further their cause in Syria now? As an occasional Security Council member, Saudi Arabia would not be able to overcome Russia's veto, but it would have an equal vote on Security Council statements and could use its turn in the rotating council presidency as a bully pulpit to push Syria's case. Now it won't be able to do those things. That's a mistake.

The refusal might be the best strategy if the Saudi goal was to force structural reform of the Security Council, so that in future it won't be so easily deadlocked. But the Saudi statement made no proposals for change. And no wonder: The only plausible reform would extend the Security Council's permanent veto-carrying membership beyond the existing five, to include emerging powers such as Brazil and India. More permanent members would mean more divergence of interests -- and more vetoes.

An alternative that might help (in some parallel, fantasy universe we don't inhabit) would be to end the veto altogether. Would Saudi Arabia want that? It would risk that the U.S. would be unable to protect the Saudis from some future intervention, voted through by a council majority, to end abuses carried out by one of the world's least democratic and most repressive regimes.

What, for example, might have happened under that scenario in 2011 in the case of Bahrain, when the Saudis sent troops to crush a pro-democracy movement by that tiny state's Shiite majority? That's a question I doubt the Saudis want to think much about, even if they have suddenly discovered principles when it comes to the bloodletting in Syria.

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