President Obama has yet to show a moral impulse for using force in Syria to end the slaughter. While he condemns the killing of innocents, he has not justified military intervention in the way that he did after ordering air attacks on Libya last year:
“As president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
Mr. Obama’s actions in Libya were designed to merely prevent the wholesale killing of an entire city, Benghazi. In Syria, the images of mass graves and slaughter have been everywhere on the Internet for months. As many as 7,000 civilians have been killed.
Why the inconsistency in Obama’s apparent humanitarianism?
It may be due to the fact that he is a realist in foreign policy, not an idealist. He tries to deal with the world effectively as it is rather than move it toward an ideal state, such as more democracy.
Is there a realist solution then to Syria’s slaughter, one that might justify even small military steps, such as a no-fly zone or securing a safe area for refugees within Syria?
The answer could lie in Obama’s Feb. 4 prediction of an “inevitable collapse” for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. In other words, the tipping point is near.
If that is the case, the realist would want to be in on the ground floor of the post-Assad era, retaining America’s interests in this most pivotal of Middle East countries.
So far, however, Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, have sent thousands of forces into Syria to help the regime. And Russia keeps supplying arms to Syria while its foreign minister just met with Mr. Assad.
The United States has done little to help unify the Syrian opposition or provide it funding. While the US ambassador to Damascus did venture to Syrian towns last year where dissidents are strong, American agents are probably not operating in the country.
Last week, the Obama administration did talk of forming a loose alliance of nations to further pressure Mr. Assad. But that is only an initial reaction to the veto by Russia and China of a UN Security Council resolution asking Assad to step down.
At the least, any non-United Nations coalition should be set up now to deal with the potential chaos if Assad should suddenly fall. Syria is riven with ethnic and sectarian differences. The ruling Alawite clan of Assad has either persuaded or threatened other minorities to stay in line, claiming the majority Sunni Muslims will harm them. Tens of thousands of refugees will need help. A new government will need support for years.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Obama’s hesitancy a year ago in not helping force Hosni Mubarak out of power in Egypt. It gave the US a weak hand in Cairo’s still-turbulent politics. Now with Syria, the US should be helping forcefully to end an even more ruthless regime. It would provide influence to salvage US interests in the region, from protecting Israel to containing Iran.
America’s strategic interests can sometimes justify humanitarian intervention.
In 1999, President Clinton sought to end instability in Europe among the former Soviet-bloc nations. He launched an 11-week aerial attack on the militant regime in Serbia. But Mr. Clinton also protected the people of Kosovo from slaughter. And the military campaign worked without the loss of one American life.
Very idealist. Very realist, too.