Not long ago, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad was clinging to power. Bolstered and rescued by Moscow, Assad is now consolidating control over areas that were once rebel strongholds. In recent weeks, for instance, he flattened Aleppo. Before leaving his post as UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon called Aleppo “a synonym for hell”—and Syria “a gaping hole in the global conscience.”
If ever there was a metaphor for former President Barack 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.
Obama 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 Obama 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, American foreign policy became care-less during the past eight years: 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.
At least give President Donald Trump credit for his candor. Many months ago, his reaction to the slaughter in Syria was blunt and unfeeling: “Why do we care?” At this early hour, we cannot predict what the Trump administration will or won’t do in Syria. But given that Trump’s 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.
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 mass-killing in Syria.)
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. His defenders and hagiographers can dress it up as a “return to realism,” but the hard truth is that Obama is indicted by his own words.
Of course, words always seemed more important to Obama than action. Consider his evaporating “red line” after the chemical attacks on Ghouta, his empty 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 Obama from Zbigniew Brzezinski, who noticed early on that the 44th 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, American moral standing is not.
Obama never seemed to recognize this. As Leon Wieseltier observes in a scalding essay, 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 came 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 the Berlin Airlift. Vietnamese children 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 NATO air power 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 using airpower to constrain the Assad regime might have dissuaded Russia and Iran from jumping in, blocked jihadists from gaining a toehold, protected Europe from a tidal wave of refugees, and prevented Assad from using (or losing control of) his chemical weapons—all national-security interests.
But that’s off the table now. With Russian warplanes and advisors filling the vacuum created by Obama’s inaction, the sort of U.S. intervention that could have saved Syria’s people from the hell they have endured, while advancing the national interest, is no longer an option.
Speaking of Russia, after Putin intervened to prop up Assad, Obama warned that “it won't work” and will end up with Russia “stuck in a quagmire.” Sixteen months later, Putin has achieved his primary objective of rescuing a puppet regime, while reasserting and expanding Russia’s role in the Middle East, checking U.S. influence, and securing Russia’s long-term presence—and influence—in a region where it had neither since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, Assad last month agreed to double the size of Russia’s naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, expand a Russian airbase near Latakia, and grant Moscow the right to deploy Russian forces in Syria for the next 49 years. Putin’s intervention in Syria was not a quagmire, but a victory.
To be sure, Obama did intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds, and he ordered the U.S. military to return to Iraq, in part, to rescue the Yazidi minority. 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, he held up Libya as the model for U.S. intervention. “In just one month,” Obama 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 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: In the final five years of Obama’s presidency, more than 470,000 people were killed in Syria (including 50,000 children); 11 million Syrians were displaced; 13.5 million Syrians required humanitarian assistance; 70 percent of Syria was left without access to drinking water; a ghastly 11.5 percent of Syria’s population was killed or wounded; Iraq and Syria were dismembered by jihadists; Russia and Iran expanded their reach and role throughout the region; and the Pandora’s Box of chemical warfare was reopened.
As the former president said, “Sometimes resolutions and statements of condemnation are simply not enough.”
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose. A shorter version of this essay appeared in Providence.