IT WAS astonishing to hear President Obama, in the preamble to his end-of-year news conference last week, cite Syria as one of his foreign policy successes.
“[J]ust as we’re strengthening our position here at home, we’re also standing up for our interests around the world,” Mr. Obama said. “This year we’ve demonstrated that with clear-eyed, principled diplomacy, we can pursue new paths to a world that’s more secure, a future where Iran does not build a nuclear weapon, a future where Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles are destroyed.”
Unfortunately, the White House press corps was not as struck by this boast as were we, and there were no follow-up questions. Here’s what we would have asked:
“Mr. President, Syria is in the process of giving up its chemical weapons, as you say. At the same time, it’s been more than two years since you both predicted and demanded the resignation of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad. Yet he has strengthened his position and continues to commit war crimes.
“His forces are besieging hundreds of thousands of people, deliberately starving them to death, according to your secretary of state. His helicopters are dropping ‘barrel bombs’ on apartment buildings in Aleppo, bombs ‘typically packed with screws, scrap metal, old car parts, blades and explosives,’ as one activist told the Wall Street Journal. More than 9 million Syrians — better than a third of the country — have been driven from their homes. Is this record consistent with ‘standing up for our interests around the world’?”
Not having gotten that question in, we listened Sunday to Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, on CBS News’s “60 Minutes.” When interviewer Lesley Stahl asked whether it had been a mistake not to support moderate Syrian forces early in the crisis (before Ms. Rice was in her current job), the adviser demurred: “Well, Lesley, I think we’ll have to review that in the context of history. And I can’t judge that at this point.”
Asked why the United States is not acting now, she gave an answer that, again, we found surprising. “It’s not that simple,” she said. “The international community isn’t unified, there’s no agreement to intervene, there’s no basis in international law to intervene.”
Regarding “Not simple,” we all can agree. The longer the conflict has dragged on, the more Islamist radicals have come to the fore, muddying the question of whom the United States could support.
But what of humanitarian intervention of the sort Ms. Rice favored when people were starving in Darfur? In that case, she seemed to have a different view on international law. “Others will insist that, without the consent of the United Nations or a relevant regional body, we would be breaking international law,” she wrote with two co-authors on the opposite page in 2006. “Perhaps, but the [U.N.] Security Council recently codified a new international norm prescribing ‘the responsibility to protect.’ It commits U.N. members to decisive action, including enforcement, when peaceful measures fail to halt genocide or crimes against humanity.”
Ms. Rice championed the concept of “responsibility to protect” again in a speech in 2009, when she was serving as Mr. Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. “We all know the greatest obstacle to swift action in the face of sudden atrocity is, ultimately, political will,” she said.