“What’s happening in Syria is heartbreaking and outrageous, and what you’ve seen is the international community mobilize against the Assad regime.”

— President Obama, at a news conference, March 6, 2012

Befitting a one-time community organizer, the president likes to use the phrase “international community” a lot. In his news conference on Tuesday, the president 12 times used the phrases “international community,” “world community,” or “community of nations.”

But some international communities are clearly more robust than others. When asked by a reporter why the United States could stand by as a “massacre” takes place in Syria, the president did a diplomatic dance that made that “international community” seeking to help the Syrian rebels appear more impressive than it is.

The Facts

During the news conference, Obama used virtually the same phrasing to describe the struggle against the late Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi and the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad: “What happened in Libya was we mobilized the international community” versus “What you’ve seen is the international community mobilize against the Assad regime.”

But, in the case of Libya, the president noted, we “had a U.N. Security Council mandate” for military action. Left unsaid is the fact that Russia and China recently vetoed a U.S.-proposed resolution on Syria, which had already been greatly watered down in a vain effort to avoid the Sino-Russian vetoes.

The veto of the resolution “undercuts a diplomat push by the Arab League to secure the 15-nation council’s support of a plan that requires Assad to yield power and prepare the country for democratic elections,” reported Colum Lynch of The Washington Post and Foreign Policy’s Turtle Bay blog. “It also killed off provisions that would have required Syria open to far greater outside scrutiny, allowing foreign journalists, Arab monitors, and U.N. human rights investigators full and unimpeded access throughout the country.

Russia, in fact, continues to supply Damascus with arms, even increasing sales, despite the fact that more than 7,000 people have been reported killed in the yearlong uprising. Moscow sold the Assad regime nearly $1 billion in arms last year.

The failure to secure Russian and Chinese support on Syria stands in stark contrast to another vexing foreign policy issue in which Obama evoked the international community — the Iranian nuclear program. In the case of Iran, Russia has been generally supportive, even more so than China; both countries have also participated in seven-nation talks designed to halt Iran’s uranium enrichment program.

U.S. officials were so furious at the Russian and Chinese vetoes on Syria that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton lashed out with some highly undiplomatic language.

“It’s quite distressing to see two permanent members of the Security Council using their veto while people are being murdered — women, children, brave young men — houses are being destroyed,” Clinton said after a meeting of nations seeking to coordinate an international response on Syria. “It is just despicable and I ask whose side are they on? They are clearly not on the side of the Syrian people.”

We find it interesting that the president did not signal out Russia or China for criticism, as Clinton did, suggesting he is still hoping to win their support.

White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor noted that the U.N. General Assembly, in a separate action, condemned Syria by a vote of 137 to 12. “I’d say that shows unity,” he said. That’s a fair point, though a General Assembly resolution is not binding, in contrast to Security Council resolutions. Russia and China also voted “no” in the General Assembly.

The Pinocchio Test

“International community” is a rather vague phrase but the president risks devaluing it when he uses it in the same news conference to describe situations in which there is Security Council backing for action (Iran and Libya) and there is no Security Council backing (Syria). We were tempted to say this was worth a Pinocchio but for the moment, though, we are going to label this a “verdict pending” because the situation is still fluid. (The administration reportedly will move soon to provide direct assistance to the Syrian opposition.) But we will keep our eye on how he describes the international response to Syria in the future.

Verdict Pending

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