The ongoing massacres in Syria raise a number of compelling issues. The most obvious is the state of the world when the United States takes a back seat in world affairs, or, as in the Obama Administration’s precious phrase, prefers to “lead from behind.” Leading from behind has made the US (and the world) bystanders to the murder and brutalization of more than 10,000 people, all the rhetoric of compassion notwithstanding.
And the massacres have indeed unleashed a torrent of rhetoric, a nuclear arsenal of verbiage designed to accomplish nothing more than placate the feelings of the bystanders and make a record for posterity. The record? That the civilized world did not stand by idly and watch children being dismembered alive but intervened with forceful and articulate denunciations of such vile conduct. Hillary Clinton might have joined a bit late (as of February, she was praising an Assad-led government for its stability) but her recent and strident declarations of “Assad must go!” resonate with almost-biblical passion. Of course, no one has yet done anything beyond the rhetoric, and only the hopelessly naïve believe that Assad will surrender because he cannot bear to have his feelings hurt enduring the insults of world leaders.
Chalk this up as another great Obama foreign policy success. Few remember that the prior administration had isolated Assad, but the Obama team chose to re-engage with Syria, even sending back the US Ambassador after a long absence. That re-engagement has worked out as well as the “reset button” with Russia which has easily manipulated the US into dismantling the missile defense in Eastern Europe already even as Russia awaits further US concessions after “my election,” as Obama was carelessly recorded saying “when I will have greater flexibility.” Putin plays Obama like a marionette. And the failure is compounded by Russia (and China’s) stonewalling on a UN resolution even condemning Syria for its atrocities, and Russia’s arming of the Syrian government today with the means to kill even more people.
Obviously, history’s narrative requires – demands – UN resolutions as de facto proof of the world’s concern, but of course it doesn’t really matter. A few choice editorials praising the resolutions and denouncing evil are icing on the cake. This recalls the famous statement of W.R. Inge, Dean of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, who said in 1915: “It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favor of vegetarianism, while the wolf remains of a different opinion.” No UN resolution – and no sanctions, as we see from Iran’s case – will persuade evil people to desist from their evil. The calculus of evil is completely different from that of a normal, healthy psyche. One who doesn’t care about murdering the young and innocent will care even less about sanctions that starve them. And, as shocking as it sounds, murderers have also been known to lie, and even to renege on written agreements and commitments. Yes, shocking!
The bottom line is – and I know I am breaching propriety and the etiquette of nations – that no one really cares about the death of Syrian civilians. A cynic might argue that no one cares because the rebels in Syria are either worse than Assad or slightly less evil than Assad but they are evil, contemptible people regardless. Dictators – as noted here several essays back –bring a sort of macabre stability to their countries, and even though Assad and father were global trouble-making, Jew-hating murderers for more four decades, they did bring some type of predictability to their affairs. That same cynic might further contend that no outcome here is good for Israel – in fact, what benefits Israel is a long, drawn-out war that devastates Syrian society, much like Israel (and the civilized world) benefited from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, and probably why the US armed both sides in that protracted conflict. As no one has any great love for Syria or its people, the argument goes, let them stew. Their personal plights are a misfortune but their national collapse and weakness on the international scene is a net gain for all. Additionally, there is no vital US interest at stake, except insofar as the US has occasionally intervened to prevent human suffering – not always but certainly more than any other nation.
We need not be such cynics, but nor do we have to tolerate the rank hypocrisy that passes for the diplomatic discourse in this sphere. The fact is no one cared when Assad Sr. massacred more than 20,000 rebellious residents of the town of Hama in 1982, and then leveled the town to boot. Nor did anyone really care when 800,000 Rwandans were massacred in 1994 – although its aftermath produced a lot of hand-wringing and even a fine movie. But to actually do something ? No. And the massacres in Darfur in the 2000s, in Cambodia in the 1970s, and even the Holocaust for that matter, confirm the sad reality that people just don’t care. And if America does not take the lead – even though it suffers intense criticism for it – then people are murdered in staggering numbers.
That is part of the anomaly – and hypocrisy – in world affairs. Americans will be criticized for invading countries to save the citizens from their dreadful dictators – and then criticized again for not intervening in other places. Faced with such fraudulence, the easiest approach is just to do nothing and say everything – condemn loudly and wave a wet noodle. But then we have to endure the verbal duplicity that is so prevalent and grating, empty expressions of concern and “prayers” for the welfare of the victims.
Or, countries can do the right thing, and the right thing might not always entail military intervention. The simplest form of succor is shelter for fleeing refugees, and any sensible Syrian (or denizen of any dictatorship) should want and attempt to flee given the opportunity. This is primarily the burden of the Muslim neighbors of Syria, but don’t expect much. Indeed, as one wise physician pointed out to me, it is puzzling that Turkey and surrounding countries have not organized a flotilla to sail to Syria with humanitarian aid (and arms). After all, thousands are killed, wounded and imprisoned in Syria, versus none in Gaza, to which the much-ballyhooed flotilla was launched. Curious? Of course not –that is standard hypocrisy. Where is the Mavi Marmara when it is really needed?
Sometimes force is useful in rectifying these situations, and then only the US which remains the world’s dominant power is capable of exercising it. But when the military does not engage and negotiations are obviously unsuccessful, then simple integrity would demand that platitudes and crocodile tears be eschewed, and citizens be encouraged to fight their own battles against their own tyrannies. Syria, like many dictatorships and most Arab countries, is ripe for civil war.
There is something embedded in the spirit of the Left that equates words with actions, and loves to congratulate itself on its rhetoric. (President Obama, last week: “The economy is not doing fine. That’s why I called this press conference,” as if his press conference will somehow improve the economy.) It is difficult to live in a world where civilian life is cheap and dispensable, but spare me the soppy sentimentality, the feigned distress and the cries of “Assad must go.”
For Bashar Assad, the determined dictator, is likely to be in power longer than Barack Obama, the leader from behind.