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Syria Burns on Obama's Back Burner

Washington Diarist.

JUSTICE IS NOT what Washington customarily delivers, but I do not believe I have ever experienced the futility of moral argument in the capital more completely than in the discussion, or rather the disappearance of the discussion, about Syria. There is not even off-the-record anguish. If there was a debate in the councils of American power, it left no mark on the disposition of American power. For almost two years, as a rebellion against tyranny has been met by a tyrant’s unappeasable appetite for atrocity and has devolved into a miserable sectarian war, as Assad uses air power against his own population, destroying Aleppo as he will surely destroy Damascus, the president of the United States has been satisfied to watch and to wait. Even by Obama’s standard of detachment, the moral inertness—and the strategic inertness too, since it is Iran’s interests that he is protecting by doing nothing—has been shocking. We have chosen to have no effect upon a crisis that will have an effect upon us. So far 25,000 people have been killed, 250,000 refugees have fled into Syria’s panicked neighbors, and 1.2 million people, more than half of them children, have been displaced inside Syria. Al Qaeda has found a new front. Everything that the administration said would happen if we intervened happened when we did not intervene; and all the warnings of the wild Bush-like trigger-mad hawkish crusading idealists came true. Diplomacy has been employed cynically as an instrument of prevarication, first with the Annan mission and now with the Brahimi mission, and most bizarrely in the president’s willingness to have Russia and China, those exemplary states, determine the contours of an American response. He is asking to be blocked. Obama has exposed the timidity, the relinquishment of position, at the heart of the multilateralism fetish: when we cannot act with others, we will not act alone. Never mind that action is desperately needed; and never mind, too, that we would not act alone, because others, Turkey and Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, are waiting only to join us. The willing are there, but we will not form the coalition. Instead Obama proclaims that until Assad turns to his chemical weapons the United States will let him be. Yet all this is stonily beside the point. Anger is fruitless, and argument, and eloquence. The conversation is over.

ONE THING, THOUGH: after Syria, enough preening about Libya. The principles, after all, are the same. The Libyan intervention was a splendid parenthesis in an administration that has otherwise been indifferent or incoherent or incompetent about democratic revolution and humanitarian emergency. And now the vile murder of our ambassador to Libya—the overthrow of a dictator emancipates forces of darkness as well as forces of light; the birth of freedom is not yet the birth of democracy—will further alienate the administration from the struggle. Michael Lewis’s sharp and ideologically uninflected report on “Obama’s way” in Vanity Fair reveals many things about the president—his behavior in basketball is downright allegorical: “... he slides in to take charges, passes well, and does a lot of little things well. The only risk he takes is his shot, but he shoots so seldom, and so carefully, that it actually isn’t much of a risk at all ...”—but it is largely a study of Obama’s understanding of the American action in Libya. It is impossible not to read these pages in the harsh light of Syria. “We knew that Qaddafi was moving on Benghazi, and that his history was such that he could carry out a threat to kill tens of thousands of people,” the president told Lewis. “We knew we didn’t have a lot of time.” Also “we knew that a no-fly zone would not save the people of Benghazi.” But then William Daley “had a point: who gives a shit about Libya”? And yet, Lewis writes, “of the choice not to intervene [Obama] says, ‘That’s not who we are,’ by which he means that’s not who I am. The decision was extraordinarily personal.” But still the president was looking to “cabin our commitment.” Finally it was “one of those 51–49 decisions.” Obama’s mental diligence is one of his strengths, and he is right to be wary of impulse, but he is a little too infatuated with complexity. Stirring leadership is not a descent into simplicity. But whatever his reason, Obama did the right thing in Libya. It is therefore imperative to note that Syria is considerably more significant than Libya, and suffering considerably more. And to note also that it is not a coincidence that the only Arab country that elected a secularist is the only Arab country in which the West intervened. The contested nature of secularism in that society, and in many other Muslim societies, is one of the great challenges of our age, and there are brave and rational and decent people in those societies who deserve our help, who are our natural, because philosophical, allies.

DOES THE UNITED STATES have a foreign policy? Of course it does. It never doesn’t. But what is it, exactly? It cannot consist in the absurd peregrinations of Hillary Clinton’s plane. (According to the State Department’s website, where you can play “Where is the Secretary?,” the travel stats of the wandering icon as of this writing were these: Total Travel Time: 1,951 hours, or 81.3 days. Total Mileage: 897,951. Countries Visited: 110. Travel Days: 376.) Our foreign policy is doctrine-free, and maybe even concept-free. It seems to consist in a series of local and regional managerialisms, a lot of problem-solving in which not many problems are solved. It is thoroughly lacking in boldness and flair. I see mainly diffidence and drift. Most of all, American foreign policy is on the back burner. The immediate reason for this is the election and its season of risk-aversion. History must be patient. Aleppo must wait on Ohio. The president is running on foreign policy, but it is all in the past. Bin Laden is still dead and the war in Iraq is still over, but what about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Mali, Sudan, China, Russia, Venezuela, and Europe? The pollsters say that Americans do not care about foreign policy now; but the wanness of our foreign policy only encourages Americans in their pullback mood, their spirit of extrication. There is the isolationism of the mind, which can be engaged by persuasion, and the isolationism of the heart, which is harder to reach. Even at 8.1 percent unemployment, America has historical responsibilities, which are also historical privileges. Even on the back burner, the world burns. 

This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.