The Obama doctrine in Syria does not seem to be working. The country has fallen apart. Matters have gone from bad to worse. The secretary of state suggests that things are so bad Barack Obama has asked for “options.” Three years into the war and the president wants a plan.
In all probability, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, is not cowed by Obama threatening options. He continues to bomb his own people — barrel bombs, cluster bombs — and starve recalcitrant cities and regions into submission. The death toll has been hideous and Obama would like to do something about it, but he cannot until the options are drawn up, which they have not been. So the people must starve until, possibly, a caravan of options arrives.
“He has asked all of us to think about various options that may or may not exist,” John Kerry said while in Beijing.
One can only imagine the profound effect this has had in Damascus, where Assad’s inner circle must be spending sleepless nights wondering about options that “may not exist.” Is this like the tooth fairy or maybe a new type of ray gun? Whatever it is, all over the Middle East, the toughest men imaginable — guys in sunglasses and Brioni suits — must be giggling. Options that “may not exist” has the sound of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the “Wizard of Oz”: “Put ’em up. Put ’ em up.”
For Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations mediator for Syria, this may come too late. He has failed to end the civil war if only because Assad won’t. (Assad even seized the assets of the opposition’s negotiators while they were in Geneva and declared some of those negotiators to be terrorists.) Brahimi thought, as few leaders do, of actual Syrians. “I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people,” he movingly said.
Brahimi had done his best, but without the threat of force or sanctions or something to make Assad hurt, there was no way that the Syrian dictator would make peace. He is winning the ugly war in the ugliest fashion, and the Obama administration, among others, has stopped predicting that he will be gone in a fortnight, or whatever they say in Chicago.
Assad has already survived Obama’s dreaded red line, the very mention of which forced him to lie about removing his chemical weapons as soon as possible. And then Obama, having used the incredible might of the United States to force Assad into a prevarication, turned to Congress for authorization. This must have induced feverish vertigo in Assad. Congress ? That tornado of babbling Babbitry — surely this was a trap of some kind. Why was the United States allowing mass murder to continue — more than 140,000 estimated deaths at last count, up from 120,000 in the fall? Why such impotence as Assad bulldozes whole neighborhoods, tortures with impunity and summarily executes the innocent as well as the guilty? Why, indeed?
Lebanon totters. Jordan drowns in refugees. Iraq has descended into ethnic chaos and its border with Syria is a mere rest stop for Islamic radicals. A thug in Damascus does pretty much as he wants, providing a stellar example to bad guys the world over: Do whatever it takes. Nobody cares.
Six million people have been displaced. Three million have fled to neighboring countries. Polio has broken out in refugee camps (see a recent account in the New York Review of Books). The world does little to stop the fighting. T he United States does next to nothing. Children die for lack of food or medicine. There is more than enough shame here to go around.
Next month will mark the third anniversary of the Syrian civil war. A timely U.S. intervention that could have — no guarantees here — ended things early was ruled out by the president. Not even incremental steps to aid the moderate opposition (some cash or the grounding of helicopters that make war on civilians) have been taken. The left and the right embrace each other in the fervor of isolationism, confusing a humanitarian intervention with efforts by 19th-century Yanquis to make Central America safe for the United Fruit Co. America has not turned inward; it has turned downward — its head in the ground.
Washington’s dawdling has become the hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy. He can make all the speeches he wants, but his confusion and indecision is what other leaders notice and what history will remember. Now, so very late, he has asked for options. Here’s one: Do something!
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.