Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Whatever makes you sleep well at night

It’s Not Obama’s FaultThe inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what's happened in Syria.” The argument made here by Aaron David Miller would have been believable had the United States not had a long history of interventions, many of which justified on humanitarian lines, and the last of which, in Libya, came exactly as the nonviolent protest movement erupted in Syria. Indeed, in Libya, the administration chose to intervene on the side of an armed insurrection, while it turned a blind eye to the cause of the nonviolent protesters in Syria, even they dominated the scene for close to a year, before the pressures of militarization took over and the country descended into civil war.

So, when Syrian activists looked to the United States in particular for leadership, this tendency did not come out of nowhere, it was not born in a vacuum,  rather, it stemmed from well-established facts and trends in America’s own history, including its own recent actions. The Bush administration’s intervention in Iraq justified on the basis of democracy promotion, and its support of the Freedom Agenda, which included providing funds for training thousands of nonviolent activists in Syria and across the region played an important role here. So did the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya, support for change in Tunisia and Egypt, and its own stances on the crisis in Syria itself, from President Obama’s early praise of nonviolent protest leaders, to his call for Assad’s departure, to his infamous red line.

Beyond the United States, the development and adoption by dozens of states as well as the UN of the legal doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, whose applicability to the Syrian situation was all too evident since the early days of the Syrian Revolution, played a crucial role in building up expectations as well. Obama himself was known to have been a supporter of the application of this doctrine in Darfur, and he had invoked it in regard to Libya. Having Susan Rice and Samantha Powers on his national security team, two one-time vehement advocate of this doctrine loomed as a good sing in this regard. If there were an aura of inevitability to the situation in Syria devolving into a civil war, there was an even stronger aura of inevitability in regard to America’s intervention in Syria.

The prospect that Syria would be allowed to devolve into this quagmire flew in the face of a well-established legal, humanitarian and political trends championed by liberals like Obama, endorsed by promises from a variety of politicians, Left and Right, and sealed with legal doctrines that ended up acquiring UN support. As such, Obama’s decision on noninvolvement in Syria came out of nowhere and cannot be justified in this callous manner.

Trying to pass the hot potato to the Arabs comes by way of deflecting blame. Authoritarian Arab regimes had no reason to rush to the defense of nonviolent prodemocracy protesters, but, giving America’s dithering, they had enough time to do what they do best: help Assad turn the nonviolent movement into an armed insurrection, then, Islamize it. Moreover, when Western Europe itself proved time and again that, without American leadership, she is incapable of mustering the will necessary to stop conflicts even when they occur on its own turf, as was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo, trying to lay the blame on an impotent entity like the Arab League make absolutely no sense. In fact, this is what “infantilizing” our situation actually looks like. There is an Arab identity out there, but it has repeatedly proven too weak to allow for the adoption of concerted efforts on any crisis. The reality is Saudis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Syrians etc. are different peoples with different, sometimes, radically different, customs and interests and outlooks to be lumped together under one epithet. Outside scholars have known that and asserted it for decades. As such, it’s simply too facetious to invoke Arabism at this stage.  

To put it differently: watching someone drown when you are a good swimmer and in possession of a boat, life vests and a rope, yet choosing to do nothing is actually illegal in many countries, and not just immoral. Justifying your inaction by claiming that you were afraid of some hypothetical sharks in the water, or by claiming that it was the responsibility of other people to intervene, people whom you well know are bad swimmers and can barely keep their heads above water should they go in, does not help your case.

As for America, people look up to her, because she willingly (and actively, at least since WWII) sought to be in that position, by virtue of its values and interests. Syria was never a test that Obama “couldn’t possibly have passed,” it was a test that he chose to ignore. And no, Obama was not expected to do everything alone, but he was expected to lead the way, as behooves an American leader. There have been numerous occasions where an American intervention could have made ample difference and prevented this mass slaughter.

Even now there are a variety of ways where an American intervention can create a more suitable environment for holding serious peace talks by establishing a better balance of forces on the ground. But Obama has amply proven by now that he is not the kind of guy who can be counted on to do the decent thing. Realists reserve their decency to the home front, because the ideal of creating a better world is not realistic, nor is it the responsibility of the powerful. This is what idealists may contend and want, but it’s not what realism is about.

So, Aaron, you are quite wrong: America does squarely belong on the list of countries to blame for what’s happening today in Syria, and across the region. It belongs there by virtue of its own history, its own values, its own power, and the actions and stated positions of its recent leaders, including many of those adopted by President Obama himself.


The realists might want to deny all this, falling back on that old amoral behavior, that never disappeared anyway, because it makes the job of leadership much easier and, perhaps, much more popularly justifiable, considering its low material costs on the short-run. But that does not make their choice right, neither strategically or morally, and will not make its long-term costs disappear. When concentration camps are back in vogue again, there is something fundamentally wrong at works, and the most powerful nation on earth, as its leaders keep boasting, cannot afford to look the other way or wring its hands.