A Care-less Foreign Policy
The Middle East is on fire. More than 80,000 people have been killed in Syria's brutal civil war. Chemical weapons are being used against civilians. Scud missiles are raining down onto population centers. Jordan is drowning in a tidal wave of war refugees. Jihadists are on the march across the region. Sectarian violence is claiming up to 50 people a day in Iraq. The death toll last month was more than 700 -- "the highest since the dark days of summer 2008," as Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn recently reported. Encircled by enemies and buffeted by chaos, Israel appears to be on its own. And as the Middle East burns, America sits on the sidelines -- not helpless but rather care-less. The White House just doesn't seem to care.
For those of us who were listening as Barack Obama began his endless campaign, this comes as no surprise. an America detached and disengagedis exactly what he advertised.
For instance, Candidate Obama made it clear that it is not America's job to prevent genocide. 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 nonintervention somewhere by pointing out that America has not intervened everywhere. "If that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces," then-Senator Obama explained, referring to genocide, "then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now -- where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife -- 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 can't intervene everyplace doesn't mean American shouldn't intervene in some places. Indeed, presidents from both parties have used military force to address humanitarian problems and 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 what was arguably America's first humanitarian war; Stalin tried to starve Berlin into submission, and Truman launched Operation Vittles;Vietnamese babies were abandoned, and Ford launched Operation Babylift; the Soviets bludgeoned Afghanistan, and Reagan armed the freedom-fighters; Saddam Hussein tried to strangle the friendless Kurds, and the elder Bush dispatched U.S. troops to protect them; Slobodan Milosevic "cleansed" the Balkans, and Clinton used a NATO air armada to stop him.
In short, answering when the forgotten and the oppressed cry out for help is part of what America does. At least it used to be.
Elie Wiesel noticed the change after a year of killing in Syria. In April 2012, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient was called upon to introduce the president at a U.S. Holocaust Memorial ceremony, and he used the opportunity to offer a stinging rebuke of the president's care-less approach.
The greatest tragedy in history could have been prevented had the civilized world spoken up, taken measures in 1939, '40, '41, '42," he intoned. "So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the No. 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president -- he who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state?
Incredibly, when the president took to the podium, he declared, "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... remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing."
This was after a year of slaughter in Syria.
It's as if the president is living in an alternate universe where Syria is not happening. President Obama's care-less approach would be more understandable, more acceptable, if he didn't pretend to care, if he didn't talk like Vaclav Havel and act like Henry Kissinger. As it is, he's indicted by his own words.
Reasonable people can and do disagree about the merits of intervening in Syria. Indeed, informed observers are divided over the question of intervention -- with some arguing that intervention is unnecessary because Syria poses no threat to U.S. interests, others that intervention is too risky given that terror groups hide among the rebels, others that because of its special role in the world the U.S. can't sit by while civilians are being butchered, and still others that the ouster of Assad would be a blow to Iran and thus in America's geostrategic interests.
These are valid and important points. But these points -- and Syria's civil war -- are secondary to the broader issue at stake. Whether freedom in Syria is worth risking American blood is open to debate -- whether freedom will even take root in Syria is open to debate -- but the importance of American credibility, American leadership, American moral standing is not.
The president doesn't seem to recognize this. Regrettably, Syria is only the latest example.
When the Iranian regime crushed its opponents after the farcical 2009 election, President Obama responded to the "Twitter Revolution" by averting his gaze. No one was calling on him to send in the 82nd Airborne to support the Iranian protestors. But freedom-loving people -- and their enemies -- look to America for signals. And the president's signals were loud and clear that summer. The sad irony of the president's inaction in Iran was that it answered his own rhetorical question of a year before, albeit in a manner his mesmerized supporters would never notice. "Will we stand for the human rights of... the blogger in Iran?" he asked during his 2008 speech in Berlin. "Will we give meaning to the words 'never again' in Darfur?" The Iranian people know the answer -- and now, so do the Syrian people.
To be fair, the president did intervene in Libya. But it seems he was prodded -- shamed -- into acting by Nicolas Sarkozy. Even then, the president was content to "led from behind" -- the oxymoronic term coined by his staff to try to justify the president's stand-off approach. And America's closest allies remember that when they asked Washington to continue air operations at one critical point in Libya, a NATO official took pains to emphasize that extension of U.S. air power "expires on Monday."
In other words, American leadership comes with an expiration date -- what a bruising but apt metaphor for President Obama's approach to foreign policy.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.