Not long ago, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was clinging to power. Bolstered and rescued by Moscow, Assad is now focusing his wrath on areas that were once rebel strongholds. In recent weeks, for instance, he turned Aleppo into a slaughterhouse. Outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calls Aleppo “a synonym for hell”—and Syria “a gaping hole in the global conscience.”
If ever there was a metaphor for President Obama’s foreign policy—with its countless words marshalled to rationalize Pilate-like inaction, with its army of straw men deployed to defeat any hint of criticism, with its insistence on “bearing witness” while doing little or, at most, too little too late, with its oxymoronic commitment to “leading from behind,” with its soothing reassurances that America can “focus on nation-building here at home”—it is Syria.
The president is not to blame for Syria’s civil war or Assad’s unspeakable brutality. But he is to blame for America’s nonresponse. With the White House committed to “retrenchment” and “offshore balancing” and all the other euphemisms for doing just enough to look like it was not doing nothing in Syria and the Middle East, American foreign policy has become care-less. President Obama just didn’t seem to care about Syria and its cascading consequences—or perhaps better said, cared enough to say something but not enough to do anything.
It calls to mind a couple admonishments from scripture: “Do not withhold good from those who deserve it when it is in your power to act,” Proverbs tells us. Another translation says, “Never walk away from someone who deserves help; your hand is God’s hand for that person.” Put another way: If you are able to help, try to help. In a similar vein, James writes that if we tell someone in need, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but we do nothing about their needs, we’ve done no good at all. Put another way: Talk is cheap.
To be sure, governments are not expected do everything individuals are called to do in scripture, and governments are expected to do certain things individuals are not expected to do. But a great and good nation like the United States—arguably the world’s only superpower, and surely the world’s only superpower with a conscience—does not “bear witness.” It acts, or it bears responsibility.
At least give President-elect Trump credit for his candor. Many months ago, his reaction to the slaughter in Syria was blunt and unfeeling: “Why do we care?” We cannot predict what President-elect Trump will or won’t do in Syria. But given that his threshold for U.S. military intervention is “a direct threat to our interest,” it’s likely he will be guided by the “America First” don’t-tread-on-me nationalism he brandished during his campaign.
President Obama, on the other hand, said things like this: “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy…where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.” (That was his description of Libya, a year before Assad turned Syria into a synonym for hell.) And this: “When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory…sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.” (That was after Assad’s gassing of Ghouta.) And this: “Too often, the world has failed to prevent the killing of innocents on a massive scale. And we are haunted by the atrocities that we did not stop and the lives we did not save…Awareness without action changes nothing.” (That was after a year of killing in Syria.)
President Obama’s foreign policy would have been more understandable if he had never pretended to care, if he hadn’t talked like Vaclav Havel and then acted like Henry Kissinger. The president’s defenders and hagiographers can dress it up as a “return to realism”—doubtless, he himself will make such a case in his third memoir—but the hard truth is that President Obama is indicted by his own words.
Of course, words were always more important to President Obama than action. Consider his evaporating “red line” after the chemical attacks on Ghouta, his demands that Russia withdraw from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, his calls for China to respect international waters, his declaration that America could “turn the page” on the wars of 9/11.
In his book National Insecurity, David Rothkopf includes a telling insight about President Obama from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who observed early on that the president “has this personal characteristic somewhere in his mind that articulating something and defining it is the equivalent of action.” Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when dealing with tyrants.
Reasonable people disagreed about the merits of intervening in Syria—with some arguing that intervention was unnecessary because Syria posed no threat to U.S. interests, others that because of its special role in the world the U.S. couldn’t sit by while civilians were butchered, and still others that the ouster of Assad would be a blow to Iran and thus in America’s interests. These were valid points. But they were secondary to the broader issue at stake. Whether democracy in Damascus or human rights in Aleppo or vengeance for Ghouta were worth risking American blood is open to debate. The importance of American credibility, American leadership, and American moral standing is not.
The president didn’t recognize this—or just didn’t care. As Leon Wieseltier observes in a scalding essay, President Obama “transformed our country into nothing other than a bystander to the greatest atrocity of our time…[D]uring the past eight years, the values of rescue, assistance, protection, humanitarianism and democracy have been demoted in our foreign policy and in many instances banished altogether. The ruins of the finest traditions of American internationalism, of American leadership in a darkening world, may be found in the ruins of Aleppo.”
Yet for those who were listening as Senator Obama began his long campaign for the presidency, this comes as no surprise. A detached, disengaged and care-less America is exactly what he advertised.
For instance, he made it clear that it is not America’s job to address humanitarian crises. As the AP reported in July 2007, “Presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn’t a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there.”
His defense of this position sounded jarringly similar to that of isolationists, who always justify non-intervention somewhere by pointing out that America cannot intervene everywhere. “If that’s the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces,” the would-be Nobel Peace Prize recipient explained, referring to genocide, “then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now…which we haven’t done.” He continued: “We would be deploying unilaterally and occupying the Sudan, which we haven’t done.”
This is sophistry. Just because America doesn’t intervene every place doesn’t mean America shouldn’t intervene in some places. Indeed, presidents from both parties have used military force to address humanitarian problems and/or affronts to human rights: Ireland was ravaged by famine in the 1840s, and the U.S. sent warships loaded with food. Spain turned Cuba into a concentration camp, and McKinley launched America’s first humanitarian war. An earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, and Coolidge deployed the U.S. Pacific Fleet to aid in recovery. Stalin tried to starve Berlin into submission, and Truman launched Operation Vittles. Vietnamese babies were abandoned, and Ford launched Operation Babylift. Saddam Hussein tried to strangle the Kurds, then warlords created a man-made famine in Somalia; and the elder Bush dispatched U.S. troops to protect the friendless Kurds and feed the starving Somalis. Slobodan Milosevic waged a war of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and Clinton used a NATO air armada to stop him. Terrorists and tyrants turned large swaths of Southwest Asia into a torture chamber, and the younger Bush used American might to build a bridge back to civilization for Iraqis and Afghans.
Yes, many of these interventions had strategic as well as humanitarian implications. Most U.S. interventions do. Syria was one those instances where humanitarian ideals and national interests overlapped. Early intervention to protect the Syrian people—a humanitarian motivation—by targeting the Assad regime could have dealt a blow to Syria’s patron in Iran, dissuaded Moscow from jumping in, blocked jihadists from gaining a toehold, and prevented Assad from using or losing his chemical weapons—all national-security interests. But that’s off the table now. With Russian warplanes and advisors filling the vacuum created by President Obama’s inaction, the sort of U.S. intervention that could have saved Syria is no longer an option.
To be sure, the president did intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds, and he ordered the U.S. military to return to Iraq, in part to rescue the Yazidis. But he was prodded into helping the Yazidis by Gen. Martin Dempsey and shamed into acting in Libya by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Even so, the president held up Libya as the model for U.S. intervention. “In just one month,” he gushed in early 2011, “the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners.”
But it wasn’t enough for President Obama to hail his achievements in Libya (which turned out to be ephemeral). He needed to contrast his record with the lesser men who sat in the Oval Office before him: “To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians,” he gracelessly intoned. “It took us 31 days.”
To lend some perspective on how totally and terribly he failed in Syria, consider this: On President Obama’s watch, more than 470,000 people have been killed in Syria (including 50,000 children); 11 million Syrians have been displaced, and 13.5 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance; 70 percent of Syria has been left without access to drinking water; a ghastly 11.5 percent of Syria’s population has been killed or wounded; Iraq and Syria have been dismembered by jihadists; Russia and Iran have expanded their reach and role throughout the region; and the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare has been reopened.
Photo Credit: In Aleppo’s Karm al Jabal neighborhood. 4 March 2013. By Basma for UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, via Flickr.