One little boy in a red T-shirt, lying face down, drowned, on a Turkish beach, is a tragedy. More than 200,000 dead in Syria, 4 million fleeing refugees and 7.6 million displaced from their homes are statistics. But they represent a collective failure of massive proportions.
For four years, the Obama administration has engaged in what Frederic Hof, former special adviser for transition in Syria, calls a “pantomime of outrage.” Four years of strongly worded protests, and urgent meetings and calls for negotiation — the whole drama a sickening substitute for useful action. People talking and talking to drown out the voice of their own conscience. And blaming. In 2013, President Obama lectured the U.N. Security Council for having “demonstrated no inclination to act at all.” Psychological projection on a global stage.
Always there is Obama’s weary realism. “It’s not the job of the president of the United States to solve every problem in the Middle East.” We must be “modest in our belief that we can remedy every evil.”
But we are not dealing here with every problem or every evil; rather a discrete and unique set of circumstances: The largest humanitarian failure of the Obama era is also its largest strategic failure.
At some point, being “modest” becomes the same thing as being inured to atrocities. President Bashar al-Assad’s helicopters continue to drop “barrel bombs” filled with shrapnel and chlorine. In recent attacks on the town of Marea, Islamic State forces have used skin-blistering mustard gas and deployed, over a few days, perhaps 50 suicide bombers. We have seen starvation sieges, and kidnappings, and beheadings, and more than 10,000 dead children.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has changed her country’s asylum rules to welcome every Syrian refugee who arrives. Syrians have taken to calling her “Mama Merkel, Mother of the Outcasts.” I wonder what they call the U.S. president.
At many points during the past four years, even relatively small actions might have reduced the pace of civilian casualties in Syria. How hard would it have been to destroy the helicopters dropping barrel bombs on neighborhoods? A number of options well short of major intervention might have reduced the regime’s destructive power and/or strengthened the capabilities of more responsible forces. All were untaken.
This was not some humanitarian problem distant from the center of U.S. interests. It was a crisis at the heart of the Middle East that produced a vacuum of sovereignty that has attracted and empowered some of the worst people in the world. Inaction was a conscious, determined choice on the part of the Obama White House. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and CIA Director David Petraeus advocated arming favorable proxies. Sunni friends and allies in the region asked, then begged, for U.S. leadership. All were overruled or ignored.
In the process, Syria has become the graveyard of U.S. credibility. The chemical weapons “red line.” “The tide of war is receding.” “Don’t do stupid [stuff].” These are global punch lines. “The analogy we use around here sometimes,” said Obama of the Islamic State, “and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” Now the goal to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State looks unachievable with the current strategy and resources. “The time has come for President Assad to step aside,” said Obama in 2011. Yet Assad will likely outlast Obama in power.
What explains Obama’s high tolerance for humiliation and mass atrocities in Syria? The Syrian regime is Iran’s proxy, propped up by billions of dollars each year. And Obama wanted nothing to interfere with the prospects for a nuclear deal with Iran. He was, as Hof has said, “reluctant to offend the Iranians at this critical juncture.” So the effective concession of Syria as an Iranian zone of influence is just one more cost of the president’s legacy nuclear agreement.
Never mind that Iran will now have tens of billions of unfrozen assets to strengthen Assad’s struggling military. And never mind that Assad’s atrocities are one of the main recruiting tools for the Islamic State and other Sunni radicals. All of which is likely to extend a war that no one can win, which has incubated regional and global threats — and thrown a small body in a red T-shirt against a distant shore.