Thursday, April 4, 2013

Obama should prepare his apology now

In March 1998, President Bill Clinton issued an apology to the people of Rwanda for having done nothing to prevent the genocide of 1994, in which between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed.

President Barack Obama should prepare his apology to the Syrians. While a genocide may not be taking place, the deaths of over 70,000 people, the fact that the Assad regime is using tactical ballistic missiles and warplanes against its own civilians, and the creation of a refugee population in the hundreds of thousands demand more from Washington than the utterly useless response of today.

American interests in the Middle East may not be what they once were, but one should not overstate the point. The U.S. still has a strategic benefit in strengthening alliances with regimes that have emerged, or are emerging, from the upheaval that began in December 2010. It still has much to gain from regional stability, above all the prevention of sectarian conflict that may undermine much of what the Americans have achieved, and died for, in the past 10 years.

And even if growing U.S. self-sufficiency in oil and gas makes the region less vital in terms of oil supply, there are many global economic powerhouses, such as China, that continue to rely on Middle Eastern oil. Their economic health is vital for the global economy, therefore the U.S. economy. Regional instability also affects global oil prices, which in turn impacts on economies worldwide. Saudi Arabia still can help stabilize international oil markets.

The debate over Syria has gone through several permutations, many based on false premises. The most misleading argument against involvement is that the United States is not prepared to deploy forces, since, we are told, Americans have spent a decade at war and Obama wants to focus on domestic concerns, above all the U.S. economy.

That assumes that the economy is not tied into Middle Eastern tranquility. Nor is it realistic to claim that the only thing America can do in Syria is to send troops. No one has seriously proposed this, and as the war in Libya proved, there are alternatives short of American boots on the ground. Yet the Obama administration has not shown any interest in examining all options, preferring to allow events in Syria to take their course, only realizing lately that this was a mistake.

But this realization has not led to a broad reconsideration of American policy. Instead, the Obama administration has preferred to engage in limited measures to shape dynamics largely pushed by others. No effort has been made to identify realistic preferable outcomes, before using American power to bring these about.

Instead, American actions show a lack of clarity and conviction. On Wednesday the Washington Post reported that the U.S. and Jordan had stepped up training of Syrian opposition combatants. The objective is for these combatants to defend a buffer zone along the Jordanian border, from where the armed opposition can attack Damascus, and through which humanitarian aid can be distributed.

However, for a buffer zone to be effective, it must have the means to protect itself from air attack. Yet the U.S. has told the Syrian rebels not to expect Western countries to create a no-fly zone above the territory. That means that the rebels will have to rely on anti-aircraft missiles. But here, too, the U.S. is very reluctant to see this happen, fearing that such missiles may eventually be used against Israel.

So what does the U.S. propose? If it has gone to the trouble of preparing Syrians to carve out a buffer zone, then it cannot ask them to forego measures necessary to protect it. But all the possible measures to do so worry the U.S., making you wonder why the Obama administration decided to train the rebels in the first place.

Similarly, for some time the U.S. has favored a political solution to the Syrian conflict. This has represented a gross misreading of reality in the country, since the Assad regime seeks to bludgeon the opposition before engaging in talks and the opposition is unwilling to speak to a mass murderer. In the absence of a military advantage by one side, there never was a serious hope for negotiations.

In failing to conclude something so obvious, the Obama administration displayed laziness, even incompetence. Yet to acknowledge that only by breaking the military stalemate could a political outcome have become possible meant giving the opposition the tools to gain the upper hand against the regime. But the administration has always said it does not want to fuel the Syrian conflict. The consequences have been that the conflict escalated anyway, Salafist-jihadists filled the vacuum, a political outcome became more remote than ever, and now the U.S. has backtracked in bolstering the rebels, realizing that the quicker the fighting ends, the better for the region.

Nor does this explain why Obama has been so reluctant to take the lead in building an international consensus over Syria. Only the Americans could find potential common ground with Russia and cobble together an accord at the U.N. Security Council. Only Washington could impose a semblance of order, while setting red lines, on Saudi, Turkish and Qatari assistance to the rebels.

All this was never going to be easy, but as the opposition gained ground, a flexible diplomatic process might have created valuable openings. But to many people Obama is above reproach. His inaction has been viewed as laudable prudence, after the George W. Bush years. But the reality is that Obama has behaved shamefully in Syria, and his administration has been lethargic and usually wrong. The president should prepare his apology now, and read it with his Nobel peace prize in the other hand. No image would better illustrate the pointlessness of American behavior in the Syrian conflict.

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