Thursday, September 10, 2015

Moral Abdication

“And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
 —President Obama, in a New Republic interview, January 27, 2013

“I have this remarkable title right now—President of the United States—and yet every day when I wake up, and I think about young girls in Nigeria or children caught up in the conflict in Syria—when there are times in which I want to reach out and save those kids—and having to think through what levers, what power do we have at any given moment, I think, ‘drop by drop by drop,’ that we can erode and wear down these forces that are so destructive; that we can tell a different story.”
 —President Obama, addressing the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation dinner on May 7, 2014
Last weekend I came across one of the most devastating indictments of the Obama administration’s foreign policy that I have read in some time. It was all the more notable because it did not come from one of the usual sources of carping about America’s flagging stature in the world, such as The Weekly Standard or other conservative media.

It was a column in The Washington Post by the paper’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt. His thrust, spurred by the current wave of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries, was that the president has been presiding over a period of moral abdication.

“More than a quarter-million [Syrians] have been killed. Yet the ‘Save Darfur’ signs have not given way to ‘Save Syria,’ ” writes Hiatt. “One reason is that Obama—who ran for president on the promise of restoring the United States’ moral stature—has constantly reassured Americans that doing nothing is the smart and moral policy.”

What is particularly interesting about Hiatt’s take is that someone other than a raging neocon is rejecting the notion that America is right to withdraw as much as possible from the region.

He writes, “When Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, critics worried there would be instability; none envisioned the emergence of a full-blown terrorist state.”

Reflecting back on the president’s assertion four years ago that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” Hiatt observes that “few imagined the extent of the catastrophe: not just the savagery of chemical weapons and ‘barrel bombs,’ but also the Islamic State’s recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, its spread from Libya to Afghanistan, the danger to the U.S. homeland that has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, the refugees destabilizing Europe.”

He might well have added that Obama’s miscalculated declaration of a “red line” over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons was ultimately resolved by outsourcing the issue to Russia, which has done everything it can to keep its client Assad in power and has thereby prolonged the conflict. Hiatt details the repeated instances of the president pledging action on Syria—training for the opposition, a safe zone on the Turkish border—that fell far short of what was promised. He adds that the presence of people in the administration like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who have strong records on humanitarian issues, only lends “further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.”

“This may be the most surprising of President Obama’s foreign-policy legacies,” muses Hiatt sadly, “not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.”

Of course, Democrats have a ready answer for those who are dismayed by the chaos in the Middle East and Northern Africa. All the blame, they say, should go to the Bush-Cheney administration. If the U.S. had not invaded Iraq in 2003, goes their reasoning, everything would be fine—or at least much better—in that region. Unfortunately, that argument would stand up better if President Obama and Vice-President Biden had not personally touted Iraq as a great success story as American troops were pulled out of the country four years ago. And, in any event, it is hard to see how the destabilization of Iraq, which strengthened the hand of Assad’s ally Iran led to the civil war in Syria. And it certainly doesn’t explain the chaos in Libya, which is the direct result of an ill-advised U.S./European intervention in 2011.

Would things now be better if the Obama administration had not in 2011 abandoned the status-of-forces negotiations initiated by the Bush administration with Iraq?

We will never know, but it is hard to imagine that it could have turned out any worse.

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