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From Aleppo to Rwanda, when is a president morally forced to act?

Values & ideals

The Syrian civil war has been a humanitarian tragedy. But the moral compass of presidents is guided by more than just doing the 'right thing.'

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    People dig in the rubble in an ongoing search for survivors at a site hit previously by an airstrike in the rebel-held Tariq al-Bab neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, last week.
    Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
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In the wake of a failed cease-fire, Russian and Syrian forces are ramping up their devastating assault on Aleppo. Last week brought hundreds of more deaths, including at least 106 children, in a broader conflict that has cost more than 400,000 lives.

United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon describes Aleppo, once Syria's second-largest city, as now “worse than a slaugherhouse,” while President Obama has called the destruction “barbarous” and says it sometimes keeps him up at night.

But he also remains resolute in his refusal to intervene, saying there is little good the United States could do in a civil war where the parties appear bent on “burning their country to the ground.”

Mr. Obama is grappling with the same dilemma that presidents have faced at least since America emerged from World War II as the undefeated superpower – one pitting the moral imperative to act against the realistic assessment of what good that action would do.

Despite the heart-rending pictures daily from Aleppo, Obama has tipped the scale weighing the moral and pragmatic firmly toward the latter – as he has throughout his presidency when presented with the option to intervene militarily.

“Obama clearly is not moved by the moral dimensions of this, or if he is he’s not showing it,” says Thomas Henriksen, a foreign policy scholar at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif. “He is being consistent with his governing principles, in that he said from the beginning that he would not start Mideast wars.”

Probably most Americans feel their “hearts go out” to the besieged Syrian people, Dr. Henriksen says. But he adds, “I don’t see Obama letting matters of the heart outweigh his realistic convictions about what the United States is able to do.”

In search of 'monsters'

US presidents have wrestled with the temptation to employ military might for good at least as far back as John Quincy Adams, who in a famous 1821 speech laid out the cautious line America would draw between moral support for the world’s repressed and downtrodden, and intervention to right the world’s wrongs.

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be,” he said. “But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

For the next century, America wasn’t enough of a power to worry much about overseas forays, presidential historians say. It was not until Woodrow Wilson championed America as a force for good in the world – first with a foray into Mexico in 1914 against an authoritarian regime – that presidents started weighing moral interventionism.

“For almost 100 years after John Quincy Adams we simply don’t have the competency to intervene, and then when we do – from Wilson on – it becomes, ‘When we can intervene, we will,’ ” says Michael Corgan, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University. “It’s erratic, but consideration of what some would call the ‘moral aspects’ enter the picture” from there on.    

Presidents are influenced by three key factors in weighing interventions, experts say: their own convictions, public pressure, and the chances an intervention has for success. After Vietnam and until the Iraq war of George W. Bush, presidents were generally reluctant to intervene for moral reasons – advancing democracy, preventing slaughter – unless the prospects were good for a quick, in-and-out campaign, experts say.

From the Gulf War to today

For example, President George H. W. Bush launched the Gulf War based on Saddam Hussein’s breach of international law with his invasion of Kuwait. But Mr. Bush resisted intervening to stop the ethnic cleansing occurring in the Balkans – following, Dr. Henriksen notes, Secretary of State James Baker’s advice that, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.”

President Clinton was also reluctant to intervene in the Balkans – until he was coming up for reelection and started facing political pressure for “doing nothing about Bosnia,” Henriksen says.

President Clinton walks with Maj. Gen. Larry Ellis, commander of Task Force Eagle, during his arrival in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, on Dec. 22, 1997. J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

“Clinton wasn’t an interventionist, he had avoided going into East Timor and Sierra Leone, but the massacres and other pressures over Bosnia were making it so that morally he almost had to do something,” he notes.

In 1994, that same political pressure to “do something” – this time from the Congressional Black Caucus – prompted Mr.  Clinton to intervene in Haiti with “Operation Uphold Democracy.”

But that same year Clinton did not intervene in Rwanda, where as many as 800,000 people were massacred in ethnic violence over just two months. Clinton now says his failure to act is the biggest “regret” of his presidency.

But one of the key factors at play in Rwanda was the accessibility of the country and the military’s ability to get in and make a difference, notes Dr. Corgan, who is also a military scholar.

“Rwanda is hard to get to. It raised questions for the military like: Where do you stage out of?” Corgan says.

That contrasts with the Balkans, which were “a quick flight from our bases in Italy,” he adds. “In any kind of humanitarian intervention, the question of ‘How hard is it going to be to do?’ usually trumps the moral worth of the cause.”

Why not Syria?

In Aleppo, all three of the key factors that typically determine intervention – the president’s convictions, the complications of intervening, and public pressure – are dissuading Obama from committing more forces, experts say.

From the first year of his presidency, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Obama suggested he would be a reluctant interventionist guided by the “just war” doctrine, which dictates action when the ability to do good is apparent.

“The ‘just war’ theory says that you may have a moral cause, but if you can’t win and all you’re doing is getting more people killed, you have no reason for intervening,” Corgan says. “From that perspective, Obama has good reason not to get involved in Aleppo and Syria.”

Obama has largely avoided entanglement in Syria diplomacy, leaving what he sees as a nearly impossible task to Secretary of State John Kerry. But when he has broached the topic, he has made it clear he sees little likelihood US intervention could do significant good.

It would take a large deployment of US troops to “stop a civil war in which both sides are deeply dug in,” Obama said in a CNN town hall event last month. Even then, he added, there would be a “limit to what we can do” until the parties accept that the war has no military solution.

Other factors offer further complications. Russia’s presence in the fight could risk turning any major American intervention into a big-power confrontation. And there has been little public pressure to save Aleppo.

In this file frame grab taken from video on Aug. 17, 5-year-old Omran Daqneesh sits in an ambulance after being pulled out of a building hit by an airstirke, in Aleppo, Syria. Aleppo Media Center/AP/File

“It really seems that Obama has been spared that piece of the typical push to intervene,” says Henriksen. Even the so-called “CNN effect” – by which pictures of human suffering prompts a clamoring for action – doesn’t seem to be operating, he says.

The sight of Omran Daqneesh, the dazed and bloodied Syrian boy photographed in an Aleppo ambulance, roused pity but no call to action, Henriksen says. “After Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody wants to do this [intervening] anymore. Obama doesn’t think we can fix a broken Syria,” he adds, “and the public doesn’t, either.”

The legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan

The failures of those other wars has left Americans increasingly dubious about intervention, experts say. In that way, Obama is a reflection of broad public sentiment.

“Obama can wring his hands and say what is happening over there is terrible – which it is – but he just is not gong to launch another Mideast war,” Corgan says.

Others say that Obama has been so resolutely disinclined to moral interventionism that they doubt he will ever second guess his response to Aleppo the way Clinton has his to Rwanda.

“Obama is so predisposed against intervention that I can’t ever see him saying ‘I regret’ over Aleppo,” Henriksen says.

That may be, but there are some suggestions that the rigorously pragmatic president is wondering if he gave the moral dimension sufficient attention.

“I do ask myself, ‘Was there something that we hadn’t thought of?’ ” Obama says in a November Vanity Fair interview with the presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Declaring that “Syria haunts me constantly,” Obama says he wonders if another leader, faced with the same wrenching crisis, might have come up with a better response.

“Was there some move that is beyond what was being presented to me that maybe a Churchill could have seen,” Obama says, “or an Eisenhower might have figured out?”

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