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Obama's Strange Silence on Syria

Even before chemical weapons were used, there was a refugee crisis. Why won't the president act?

Getty/Odd Anderson

In all likelihood, the White House's confirmation on Thursday that chemical weapons have been used in Syria will soon confirm something else: Not all “red lines” are drawn the same. Yes, President Barack Obama made an explicit warning to President Bashar al-Assad last summer concerning Syria's chemical weapons stockpile. But the only intervention that the president currently seems to have in mind is, per a letter from the White House to Senator John McCain, "a comprehensive United Nations that can credibly evaluate the evidence and establish what took place." This response merely substitutes one type of inaction for another.

But if the White House's Syria policy over the past few months hasn't been of much help to Syrians, it has helped to clarify what motivates the president's thinking on intervention—namely, that it's to be avoided if it suggests any possibility, however slight, of military involvement. Indeed, for those paying attention to the administration's handling of Syria's refugee crisis, Obama's reluctance comes as no surprise. For weeks, that crisis has needlessly remained on the brink of disaster.

Some 4 million Syrians are internally displaced, and 1.2 million have fled to neighboring countries, according to the U.N. At the current rate of border crossings—some 4,000 a day—the population of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey will rise to one million each by year's end. (To appreciate the scale, consider that the total Syrian population prior to the war was 20 million.) This isn't a situation international agencies and NGOs are naturally equipped to handle. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees bears responsibility under international law for providing refugees with life's basic necessities—shelter, food, and medical care—but the agency's budget for crisis response depends entirely on donations from 193 member states. The costs have been immense in the case of Syria: In January, the UNHCR made a request for $1.5 billion for the year, which turned out to be only enough for the first four months of 2013.

Or rather, it would have been enough, had the donations actually come through—which, perhaps predictably, most of them did not. The donor conference held in Kuwait in January seemed, on the surface, to be a success, but many of the donations never arrived, at least as part of the U.N.'s coordinated relief efforts. (Three Gulf countries—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—pledged a combined $1 billion, but have preferred to distribute money and resources directly to Syrian refugees or through their own NGOs.) "We are perilously close, perhaps within weeks, to suspending some humanitarian support," the heads of five U.N. agencies declared in a New York Times editorial last week. UNHCR is already struggling to pay for lighting and blankets in some refugee camps, and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) has announced that without additional contributions "in the coming days and weeks," it will have to cut vaccination efforts and water provision.

In one sense, the U.S. has already contributed plenty to this effort: The biggest donor of Syrian aid so far, Washington has pledged (and delivered) $385 million to the U.N. and affiliated agencies and organizations, and has promised bilateral aid to Jordan totaling $200 million. That's why the Obama administration can, and does, claim that the U.S. has already done its part, while insisting that it's time for other countries to step up—ideally, at the emergency donor conference that the U.N. is holding in Geneva in May.

As a strategy, you could do worse than call it “leading from behind,” a diplomatic analogue to the White House's successful method for organizing a military coalition to intervene in Libya. But that's precisely why it deserves more scrutiny. Why would the White House be inclined to treat a humanitarian mission similarly to a military one? Military coalitions can clearly serve as a useful kind of insurance against the unpredictable costs of war. (The chaos of the war in Iraq made the merits of a “light footprint” approach that much clearer.) In the case of humanitarian aid, though, the costs and the benefits of leadership are relatively transparent and predictable. On the basis of the humanitarian effects alone, the very fact that the Obama administration can afford to fill a significant chunk of the U.N.'s emergency funding gap—and with one war in Iraq over, and another winding down in Afghanistan, there's certainly reason to think that it can find the money—is reason enough to consider that it should.

It's true that if the United States shoulders more of the burden, other countries might feel they can get away with shirking their own responsibilities in future refugee crises. (And it's worth pointing out that the donations from European countries have been especially pitiful thus far.) But such effects are abstract in a way that the suffering of refugees isn't; is it really worth making a point about diplomatic moral hazard at the expense of abject Syrians?

Besides, humanitarian assistance isn't just a matter of charity; it's a political struggle. The millions of Syrians currently displaced by war are eventually going to return to their homes, and will presumably play a role in determining the shape of a future Syrian state. So the Gulf countries haven't simply withheld their pledges to the U.N.; they're actively supporting NGOs and organizations sympathetic to their own political goals—when they're not delivering cash to refugees inside Syria and arms to jihadi rebels. (That this strategy might also force the U.N., an agency that many Syrians identify with the West, to shutter its relief operations, is a feature, not a bug.) And, needless to say, Islamic monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait don't much share Washington's vision of a secular and multi-sectarian post-Assad Syria. In other words, delivering more money to the U.N. is only part of the fight; Washington also needs to figure out how to publicly promote its efforts to aid Syrians.

But, judging from the Obama administration's reticence until Thursday, the absence of public leadership hardly seems an accident. One gets the sense that the White House's main goal is not only to avoid military intervention, but to avoid steps that might have the marginal effect of making military intervention more likely. And it's undeniable that humanitarian assistance will eventually run up against limits imposed by the security situation in and around Syria: There's only so much you can do in a war zone before you need a military of your own to keep humanitarian organizations safe.

Still, the least that any policy deserves is to be treated on its own terms. The fact that humanitarian assistance might eventually imply the need for military assistance isn't a reason to simply dismiss the former. And however practiced the arguments about the Iraq war may be, there's no good reason that a policy of humanitarian leadership needs to be confused with a posture of crude militarism.

So there is something strangely willful about the White House silence on Syria—a sense not that a humanitarian intervention might be unwise, but that any intervention might simply be too much for the U.S. to bear. Prudence is worthy of praise when it's a matter of empiricism, but it's not worth much when it's simply a reflexive cringe at complex problems. We're getting to the point where one can't help but wonder whether the ultimate effect of Obama's “light footprint” doctrine isn't simply to lighten the burden of America's capacity to lead.