Richard Cohen: Obama’s increasingly muddled Syria policy

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign in 1995 “ended the bloodshed in Bosnia.” A campaign of that length in 1999 ended ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. A shorter series of airstrikes by the alliance in 1995 halted Serbian attacks in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The following column has been updated.

June 18, 2013

I have written so many columns about the Syrian civil war they are like rings on a tree stump — a way of gauging Barack Obama’s steadfast inaction and what the cost has been. In one of my first columns about that war, I called on the administration to arm the rebels and impose a no-fly zone, grounding Bashar al-Assad’s attack helicopters and his airplanes. At that point — March 27, 2012 — the war had taken the lives of 10,000 Syrians.

The figure is now at least 92,000.

The war claims about 10,000 lives a month. It has pushed more than 1.5 million refugees over Syria’s various borders. It has destabilized the Middle East. It has sucked in jihadists from all over the region. It has become increasingly sectarian in nature and extended Iranian influence. Hezbollah, an Iranian client, has entered the fray, pouring over the border from Lebanon. Poison gas (sarin) has apparently been used by government forces. The larger this crisis gets, the smaller Obama appears. He has shrunk into insignificance.

Does he care?

Does he care that he has let this crisis get out of hand? Does he care that his morbid fear of the slippery slope has contributed to thousands of bodies slipping down that slope? Does he care that after saying Assad had to go, Assad didn’t? Does he care that after calling the use of chemical weapons a “red line,” he lackadaisically responded by offering the rebels small arms that will do them not much good? Finally, does he care that he seems not to care?

The announcement that the United States had changed its policy and would now supply small arms to the rebels was made not by Obama but by Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council. This is not an example of Obama’s humility. It is Obama maintaining some distance between himself and his own policy. The president is the master of the muddle. He concocted a doozy in Afghanistan when he announced a surge and a date of withdrawal — a marriage and a divorce at the same time.

For opponents of U.S. intervention in Syria, the instructive precedent is the Iraq fiasco. But that has so little in common with the Syrian situation they may as well cite the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua of early last century and the ultimate victory of the guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino. The more apt comparison is the 78-day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that ended the bloodshed in Bosnia — and cost not a single American life. (Another apt comparison is Libya where, once again, no American boots were put on the ground and U.S. combat deaths were zero.)

Syria could have — or could have had — the same outcome. This is not an effort to remove “every non-democratic government in the world . . . by force,” in the incomprehensible formulation of Zbigniew Brzezinski, but an attempt to end the killing in one country. The operative philosophy is that you do what you can when you can. The United States has the muscle. There are few grander causes than the saving of human life.

The Bosnian precedent applies in yet another way. Back in the ’90s, the Balkans were described as a hopeless stew of homicidal maniacs — Serbs, Croats, Muslims, at least two types of Christians and even jihadists taking a working vacation from the fun in Afghanistan. Syria is similarly described — Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites and the usual jihadists. But as Alia Malek, an American journalist of Syrian heritage, put it in an essay in the New York Times, a focus on sectarianism “permits the apathy needed to watch the disintegration of societies with a shrug, as if the whole mess were inevitable.” The weary recitation of all these ethnicities suggests a colonial-era mentality: those bloody people and their bloody behavior.

Obama’s approach to this crisis is stunningly chaotic. First he did next to nothing as the war got out of hand. Now he’s supplying what amounts to Daisy air rifles to the outgunned rebels. He draws the line at using U.S. ground troops — rejecting a demand that has never been made — and if he issues oaths to human decency and laments the huge loss of life, it must be over dinner with the kids. I look — so far in vain — for his policy, for his principles or even for his concern, but what I get is a steely determination to do nothing. There are two tragedies here — one in Syria and one in the West Wing.

* * *

In a previous column about Edward Snowden, I wrote that “no one lied about the various programs disclosed last week.” I was not aware that, pretty much as I was writing, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, was telling NBC’s Andrea Mitchell that an answer he had given Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) some months before was not exactly the truth. Wyden had asked if the government was collecting data on large numbers of Americans. “I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful, manner,” Clapper said.

Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.

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