Cannons to the Left of Him

Richard Cohen has written a scathing indictment of President Obama’s inaction over Syria:

President Obama’s inaction has cost the region plenty. It has permitted a humanitarian calamity to metastasize — 5,000 refugees a day, according to the United Nations. It has allowed the most radical of the insurgents to come to the fore and has flooded nearby countries with refugees, upsetting carefully calibrated ethnic balances. Jordan, a nation of 6.5 million people, has more than 250,000 Syrian refugees; Lebanon has nearly as many. The size of the influx could overwhelm these small and contrived nations.

Obama, of course, has been asked about his policy. The answer he provided the New Republic recently is troubling: “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” The statement is disingenuous, suggesting that the inability to do everything excuses the unwillingness to do anything. It also prompts the question of why he militarily intervened in Libya, the Congo civil war notwithstanding.

Clearly, the president is disappointing liberal interventionsts. Contrariwise, I think the president’s policy with respect to Syria has been about right. I believe it’s far more difficult to distinguish the good guys (if any) in Syria from the bad guys than Mr. Cohen surmises. Do we really want to be arming people who will turn around and use those weapons against us? Syria is not Libya. I’m not even sure we have the ability to produce the sort of “no-fly zone” in Syria that we did in Libya. I seem to recall that the “no-fly zone” we enforced in Iraq didn’t prevent Saddam Hussein from using helicopters against his own people.

I do believe that the president’s decisions with respect to Syria which, as has been widely reported, are completely his own reveal the complete vacuity of the “responsibility to protect”. It’s another theory cast on the dustbin of history.

13 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    I assume that he intervened in Libya because (a) there was regional support from Europe and the Arab League, satisfying at least partially a concern of liberal interventionism, and (b) there were concerns about refugees fleeing to Europe.

    Am I right to assume that Israel is not calling for U.S. intervention in Syria?

  • Until the end of 2011 Israel, oddly, expressed a weird sort of support for the Assad regime. That would imply that at that point the Israeli government favored measures to sustain it.

    Presumably seeing which way the canoes were heading, since then the Israeli government has treated the end of the Assad regime sooner rather than later as inevitable which I would gather means they would oppose intervention there.

    My own view of what happened WRT Libya is somewhat less rosy than yours, PD. I think the Obama Administration got rolled by the French, British, and Italians. The French and Italians in particular have long-standing commercial interests in Libya they wanted to expand which Qaddafi stood in the way of.

  • jan

    Dave, Walter Russell Mead sees our Syria policy in a different light than you do, in his piece saying that Obama hits a sour spot on Syria.

    Once again President Obama has found the sour spot in his foreign policy—this time on Syria. Already pilloried by the left and right for his garbled strategy, Obama is now drawing the ire of the center as well. Following Leon Panetta’s admission last week that the President overruled his national security team’s wish to arm the rebels, the FT is calling Obama out. . . .

    As the FT points out, President Obama wants it both ways: he’s demanded Assad step down and called preventing genocide “a core national-security interest,” but promised in his second inaugural that “a decade of war is now ending.” He’s also threatened war with Syria if chemical weapons are used and proclaimed a “responsibility to protect,” but seeks to slash defense spending, might withdraw a U.S. carrier from the Gulf, and vetoed his cabinet’s recommendations on Syria.

    The problem is not that the President is turning his back on Syria; there’s certainly a case that one could make for such a policy. The problem is that the President has neglected to make a case at all. He’s been content to make certain rhetorical promises while pursuing contradictory lines of policy. This is not only insincere to the American people, it is an extremely dangerous strategy: Iran, Assad, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel might no longer know what to expect from the U.S., or believe anything its Commander in Chief says. When one of the region’s most powerful actors projects that kind of weakness, it’s a game changer.

  • michael reynolds

    We did Libya because Libya was easy. It was the near-perfect physical environment for allied military capabilities. Syria is much more difficult as a mere physical entity.

    Politically it’s a swamp, full of snakes and gators. How do we back “rebels” who are entirely capable if they win of carrying out an ethnic cleansing type of operation against Syrian minorities, in particular Christians? And how do we arm a force we know is shot through with jihadists?

    But I don’t think exceptions to RTP doom RTP to the dustbin. Doctrines do not have to be applied in all circumstances. We do what we can, we avoid doing what is too dangerous.

  • michael reynolds

    I have the opposite view on Libya as regards being rolled. To me the essential moment was when Russia stood aside. I don’t believe that was a fruit of European diplomacy. I don’t think the Russians roll over for the French, still less the Italians.

  • Icepick

    The size of the influx could overwhelm these small and contrived nations.

    Why is it the USA’s responsibility to protect these small contrived political entities on the other side of the planet? Seriously, what do I care about the political viability of Jordan, or more specifically the King of Jordan’s personal power and wealth? Why should any American that doesn’t have relatives there care about it? Is there any possibility we could pay off the Turks to re-conquer the whole damnable region again?

  • But I don’t think exceptions to RTP doom RTP to the dustbin.

    We must have different views of the meaning of responsibility. If something is a responsibility only when it’s ” the near-perfect physical environment”, that’s not a responsibility at all. It’s a wish.

    Responsibilities are things you do even when they’re not pleasant, popular, or convenient.

    Syria meets every criterion of the UN’s “responsibility to protect” initiative. The failure to respond means that Russia and China’s position, that R2P is a violation of national sovereignty, arbitrary and, generally, an extension of national interest rather than protecting populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing (the four crimes that define the initiative) has largely been vindicated.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    I agree with the being rolled, and I would include Egypt also. To my knowledge there has been no call for intervention in Syria, but Europe has little commercial interests there.

    The French are at it again in Mali, and they will be looking for the US to bail them out. We have seen this movie.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    The Russians had commercial interests in Libya, and they intended to increase their contracts. They had no use for Gaddafi, and they stood aside. When Gaddafi finally fell, their contracts were not renewed, and they were locked out of any future contracts.

    Syria is the result. The easy way to fix Syria is to let the Russians install his successor.

  • TastyBits


    … what do I care about the political viability of Jordan …

    Queen Rania

  • Icepick

    @ TB

    Still don’t care.

  • steve

    Syria is a classic case of hoping that both sides could somehow lose. We have no interests there and no one worht supporting.


  • michael reynolds

    Responsibilities are things you do even when they’re not pleasant, popular, or convenient.

    I think that’s too absolute. I have a responsibility to obey the traffic laws. I do, most of the time. And other times I don’t. And yet I still have that responsibility.

    We are not required to commit suicide to meet our international obligations. The test of reasonableness always applies.

    But in Syria it goes beyond all that to the core fact that we have no idea which course of action would best protect the Syrian people. Back the rebels? Back Assad? Sunnis? Shia?

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