I remember 9/11 vividly. I remember the temperature and clouds in the sky. I was at work at a hotel when the first plane hit. I also remember the subsequent invasion, insurgency, and counter-insurgency quite well. Journalists and the public were outraged at the post-war lack of planning and the series of mistakes made by the administration. Then there was Abu Ghraib and the revelation of black sites and waterboarding. Rep. Dennis Kucinich introduced 35 articles of impeachment to the House in the summer of 2008 for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” There was a push to have President Obama appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Bush. All said and done, the death toll in Iraq was about 100,000 Iraqis (2003-2009) and 4,491 American service members. There was no shortage of outrage.
The American public was angered at the prosecution of the war, though many Democrats who voted for the war conveniently jumped ship when things started to turn (our current Democratic nominee included). To his credit, Bush turned the tide of the insurgency and stabilized Iraq before he left office. Many were counseling him to cut and run. But he doubled down with the surge, and it paid off.
But what strikes me about all of this is the absolute silence of Democrats, the media, and the political left on the humanitarian nightmare that is Syria. Outside of being horrified at the death toll and periodically posting pictures of refugees or injured children, the media has collectively decided to avert its gaze. And it is a nightmare on a scale that makes Iraq pale in comparison. The current estimates place the death toll at the low end around 300,000 and at the high end near 500,000. These figures will only rise, and even more so as Obama now seems content to ride out the rest of his presidency doing nothing in Syria except for striking worthless deals with the Russians. When Iraq was melting down, Bush was being raked over the coals by the media on a daily basis. Obama? An uncomfortable question or two and then a stern lecture in response about how we are not going to get caught in quagmires. They refuse to hold this president accountable.
President Obama overlearned the lesson of Iraq. Thinking he had a mandate to “end wars,” he cut and ran from Iraq, leaving the Sunnis of Iraq to the devices of Nuri al-Maliki. More importantly, they left a giant vacuum in northern Iraq where the former elements of al Qaeda in Iraq metastasized into the nasty cancer now known as ISIS. Red lines aside, Obama is not solely to blame, but he deserves a good deal of blame. Walter Russell Mead, influential author, professor, and editor of The American Interest, who twice voted for Obama, recently saddled Obama with the odious label of “the most disastrous American foreign policy presidency since World War II.”
And so I return to my original question: where is the left’s outrage? Where is the anger and righteous indignation over a conflict that has been catastrophically handled by the Obama administration? Where is the outrage at the massive loss of human life that could have been prevented?
The media seems content to gently beat their breasts at a distance or advocate for letting in more refugees, but refuse to look into the heart of darkness. To express pathos for the refugees but do nothing about the source of the problem is cheap and immoral. The real outrage is the lack of outrage. Our inaction as this destruction proceeds a pace is tragic.
If Bush deserved public shaming for his sins, Obama deserves a double portion for Syria. We tend to focus on sins of commission, but oftentimes sins of omission are more deadly. Just think of Rwanda. To add just another twist of irony to this whole situation, Samantha Powers, Obama’s Ambassador to the UN, wrote the seminal book on the doctrine that has come to be known as R2P—“Responsibility to Protect.” One gets the feeling he may have not read it.
If we want a starting place for a change of policy I think we need look no further than ourselves. We should all repent by lamenting our indifference and inaction while Syria burned. At least that would be a step in the right direction.
Daniel Strand is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Political Thought and Leadership at the Arizona State University. His scholarly interests are in history of political thought, religion and politics, and the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo.
Photo Credit: Azaz, Syria in August 2012. By Christiaan Triebert, via Flickr.