Before going to war in Iraq, the US administration saw the UN as a burden. Now, as it grapples with Syria's apparent culpability in the Hariri murder and its insurgent-friendly borders with Iraq, the US is happy to pursue its latest nemesis through the UN
The American public and lawmakers would not support another US-initiated war overseas
It is difficult for Bush to focus on Syria with the CIA leak investigation winding down
Just over three years ago, President George Bush addressed the United Nations and presented the members with a challenge: The international body was called to enforce the resolutions against Iraq, or else the US would do so unilaterally. A month later Congress authorized opening war against Iraq and the rest is history. Bush left the UN behind, organized his own international coalition and went to war.
The UN, three years ago, was no more than a burden for US foreign policy.
This week, when the issue of Syria's possible involvement in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri took center stage internationally, things seemed quite different at the UN. The Americans didn't merely make clear that they accept that Syria is an issue to be handled by the international community as a whole; they seemed veritably pleased by the idea.
No longer a burden, the Bush administration cherished every moment of international cooperation, going hand in hand with France in a joint draft resolution, and avoiding tough language that might not sit well with some of the Security Council members. President Bush even went on Al-Arabiya satellite TV and announced that military action against Syria is not on the table now and that he is determined to utilize diplomatic tools to deal with the problem.
There are many similarities between Iraq of 2002 and Syria of 2005. Both are seen by the US president as rogue regimes, both undermine his vision of spreading democracy and freedom in the Arab world, and both have the potential for jeopardizing regional stability.
But the differences between Saddam's Iraq and Assad's Syria, in the eyes of American decision makers, are much greater than the points of similarity.
This time, the US really does see the problem as an international issue. President Bush may have sought international support and the approbation of the UN before the Iraqi war mainly as an attempt to appease the Europeans and Arabs who opposed the war, but this time America is choosing international collaboration because of its own interests. The administration cannot afford another war against another Arab country. The US military is tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, the budget deficit is at a record level and the American public and lawmakers would not support another US-initiated overseas war.
While the three years that have passed have not changed the basic tenets of the Bush administration's foreign policy, the means used for achieving it have undergone a revolution.
America is no longer seeking unilateral action abroad. Rather, it is beginning to see the advantages of working together with the other powers in the international arena. In dealing with Iran's nuclear program the US is working with the EU-3; on the North Korea nuclear issue the Americans have partnered with the major regional players for six-way talks; and in the Middle East the US is working through the quartet, which includes also the EU, UN and Russia.
Following the release of the interim report by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis on the Syria-Hariri issue, the administration used tough rhetoric against Syria and its president Bashar Assad, but stopped short of talking about the consequences of a Syrian refusal to cooperate with the international investigation. The only route by which the US is pursuing the issue runs straight through the UN. No threats, and most probably no calls for more sanctions. At most, the US may resort to a few strikes against terrorists along the Syria-Iraq border.
There are numerous reasons for the measured and restrained American response to the Mehlis report and many of them have to do with the Iraqi experience. If there is one lesson the US has learned from the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq, it is not to go against the international community and not to suppose its intelligence is better than what all other parties are saying. In addition, the US does not have any practical options for dealing with Syria on its own. American sanctions have already been imposed and will not be any more effective, the use of the military is too risky and too costly, and the idea of regime change is off the table in the absence of any viable alternative leadership.
And so, in the Syrian case, the administration is determined to go hand in hand with the UN and the international community - not one step ahead and not one step behind.
It is also difficult for the US president to single out Syria as a burning American issue and focus on it, when internal issues seem to be consuming all his time and attention.
The CIA leak investigation, winding down to its final days and to inevitable indictments against White House officials, does not leave much room on the president's agenda. Asked, during his joint press conference with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, whether he can deal with any other issues while trying to take care of his own internal problems, Bush answered: "There's some background noise here, a lot of chatter, a lot of speculation and opining. But the American people expect me to do my job, and I'm going to."
But the background noise just got louder this week, and the problems outside did not get any easier. While America marked the 2,000th soldier killed in Iraq, the situation on the ground is not getting any better and the public's support for the war is not growing.
President Bush is known to have the ability to focus on issues and ignore distractions, but even for him there is too much going on at once. He is not in a situation to take a lead role on the Syrian issue.
Although the Syrian refusal to close its border with Iraq and stop insurgents from entering the country is a vital American interest, the issue has not managed to get bumped up to a priority spot on the presidential "to do" list.
The difficulties facing the Bush administration, both on the home front and abroad, are setting the course of action for the US in its dealings with Syria. And so the US is taking the international road and is willing to share the driving with all who are ready to join in.