Mark Twain supposedly said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” President Obama and Secretary John Kerry must hate the rhyme, as their frustrating experience confronting Assad and Syria echoes more and more President Bush’s experience with Saddam and Iraq during the summer and fall of 2002.
And now the agreement reportedly hammered out in Geneva between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to send UN inspectors into Syria in order to forestall the use of US military force looks very much like UN Security Council Resolution 1441 (8 November 2002), which dispatched UN inspectors to Iraq in late 2002. The resolution directed UN inspectors to begin work within 45 days of the resolution and threatened “serious consequences” for Iraq if it did not comply.
Then, as now, the Russians were the principal obstacles to a strong resolution. John Negroponte, an experienced diplomat and veteran negotiator, was the US Ambassador to the United Nations, and the White House sent me (I was then NSC Legal Adviser) to join Negroponte. Across the table from us objecting to the US-proposed resolution line by line was the tough Russian Ambassador to the UN — Sergei Lavrov. So the negotiations over Syria inspections must be even more familiar to Lavrov than to Kerry.
As with Saddam, it is hard to imagine that Baashar al-Assad will cooperate fully with UN inspectors. If he does not, President Obama will face the same decision that confronted President Bush in early 2003, whether to keep going back to the UN or to use force unilaterally, as he has threatened to do.