The Middle East: could the UN succeed where the US failed?

EPA/Olivier Douliery

How did it come to this? Once again Australia is apparently in a ‘high state of readiness’ and prepared to commit to military forces in the Middle East. In reality, this will probably only mean the RAAF at this stage, but even this would be a remarkable turn of events given this country’s unhappy and entirely ineffective recent involvement in the Middle East.

But if the region’s history is bad, the future looks worse and bereft of good options.

Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that Barack Obama is reluctant to get drawn back into a series of interlocking conflicts that defy comprehension, much less easy resolution.

There is no simple explanation for the unholy mess the region finds itself in. No doubt it’s possible to apportion some of the blame to ‘the west’, colonialism, the US, Israel, Arab culture, demography, Islam, the failure of economic and political development and much else. But however we got here, it doesn’t make the road ahead any clearer.

And yet we do know some things, perhaps. First, there are clear limits to the efficacy of military intervention. If the toppling of Saddam Hussein should have taught us anything it’s that it is far easier to tear something down than it is to build something up. No doubt there are many strategic hardheads in the US and elsewhere who now think Saddam’s despicable but reliable despotism within national boundaries looks rather attractive compared to the borderless chaos being unleashed by the Islamic State.

The second thing we know is that there is seemingly no conflict – no matter how remote and tangentially connected to this country – that ‘Team Australia’ is not prepared to volunteer for if it also involves our principal ally. Remarkably enough, it seems as if it is the Australian government that is actually encouraging the US to live up to its billing as what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called the ‘indispensable nation’.

It would be easy to dismiss Australia’s actions as the usual Anglosphere suspects getting together to act where others cannot or will not. There are very good reasons not to get involved given the record of such interventions and the fact that it is not obviously in Australia’s vital national or strategic interest to do so.

And yet there are arguably also ‘good’ reasons for intervening, too. Saving people from being casually butchered on the basis of race or religion looks like a good cause if ever there was one. The alternative to standing passively on the sidelines is to encourage more of the same, to say nothing of establishing a self-sustaining, economically viable quasi-state that is intent on creating local and international mayhem.

The problem, as ever, is just what action ought to be taken and by whom, even if there is widespread agreement that something ought to be done to halt the slaughter of innocents in the first place. Plainly, ‘coalitions of the willing’, even if they are well intended and driven by noble principles, do not have a good record in this part of the world. No matter what the US does it cannot satisfy all the regional actors and combatants. The temptation is to do nothing or to do it from a safe distance by remote control.

But if the US with or without the help of enthusiastic allies like Australia cannot act effectively, then who can? Ultimately, the resolution of these conflicts – whatever their origins – lies with the locals.

Such truisms will be of little comfort to those whose lives are immediately threatened, of course. But it is entirely possible that there is no solution to the current chaos, or not one that can be externally imposed in a politically acceptable manner, at least. In such circumstances even the most improbable of responses merit scrutiny.

For all the opprobrium and criticism that is – often deservedly – heaped on the collective head of the United Nations, it has a one crucial potential advantage: it is not the US nor an Anglo-American coalition. It is the nearest thing we have to the much-invoked but little-realised international community. With sufficient resources – even with its own continuing military capability, perhaps – it could offer the prospect of a permanent non-partisan force that could intervene in the world’s multiplying crises.

A more effective UN might mean that the US wouldn’t always have to do the international heavy lifting with all the negative consequences that entails for the US itself. Australia could even volunteer its services on behalf of a genuinely multinational enterprise, rather than as principal cheerleader for a rather limited incarnation of ‘the west’.

All a bit unlikely, perhaps, but worthy of consideration given the obviously failing and flawed alternatives. The most remarkable thing about the UN given state of the world at present is that it exists at all. It is still an improbable and rather magnificent achievement for all its undoubted shortcomings. It may be time to take it more seriously and give it the resources and support it needs if it is actually to realise its potential.