Empty rhetoric characterises the Obama years – by Michael Young
Many Americans bristle when they hear that Washington bears some responsibility for the war in Syria. The US shouldn’t be blamed for a conflict between Arabs taking place thousands of kilometres away from its shores, they insist.
There is truth in this. Had the US not been a superpower, we would not have heard such an accusation. However, because it is, and its decisions have a bearing on international affairs, the criticism comes. And because American ambitions are global, Washington’s actions invite reprobation when these ambitions are not met.
For instance, a reading of the Obama administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy, with its sweeping prose, shows how wide the gap between aspiration and reality is. The NSS claims to provide “a vision and strategy for advancing the nation’s interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership”, with particular emphasis placed on the last five words.
Events in Syria have shown the shallowness of American pretensions. The suffering there, the endless human rights violations, the continued use of chemical weapons, the abandonment of universal values, have revealed only that the Obama administration is good at empty rhetoric.
In their focus on fighting ISIL while ignoring all other outrages in Syria, the Americans have displayed marked disregard for universal values and a rules-based international order.
Even on an issue that once seemed likely to bring about American intervention – chemical weapons – the Obama administration has lost interest. After concluding a deal to destroy Syria’s chemical arsenal, Washington has ignored the bombing of civilians by the Syrian regime using chlorine gas.
The writer and academic Ziad Majed wrote a book on the Syrian uprising, aptly referring in his title to an “orphaned revolution”. Indeed, very few in the West have embraced the revolt against Bashar Al Assad’s regime, let alone claimed its paternity. Rarely has such an epic humanitarian catastrophe sparked so little mobilisation globally, so little indignation.
And yet, Syria was destined to be a test case for the rules-based order Washington claims it wants to consolidate. The lack of a consensus at the UN was not Barack Obama’s fault. Yet the response to politically-induced blockage should not have been inaction. It took nearly two years for the Obama administration to prepare the framework for a resolution of the conflict, in tandem with the country blocking progress at the UN.
The Obama administration also prevented the establishment of a no-fly zone, which could have reduced air attacks against civilians and contained the refugee burden on Syria’s neighbours. It made no effort to organise the Syrian opposition and precipitate Mr Al Assad’s downfall, despite acknowledging that regime crimes rendered the president illegitimate.
Nor did the Obama administration seek to ensure that senior Syrian officials responsible for war crimes would later be brought to justice. That is especially true of those behind the chemical weapons attack of August 2013, which Washington and the UN confirmed.
Why has Syria not mattered to Americans in the formation of a rules-based international order? Why have universal values been less meaningful when applied to Syrians? In fact, as the Obama administration negotiates with Iran, why have human rights never come up given Iran’s deep involvement in human rights abuses and sectarian cleansing in Syria?
Two decades ago, Bill Clinton tried to remain aloof from the war in Bosnia, but the massacre in Srebrenica in 1995 forced him to re-evaluate American behaviour. What Mr Clinton grasped was that the public and Congress would turn against a president who didn’t act in the face of mass murder.
Mr Obama has felt no such pressure. Most Americans are indifferent to what happens in Syria. Recall that after the chemical weapons attack of 2013, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 60 per cent of respondents said they opposed military action by the United States against the Syrian regime, even though 75 per cent said they thought Mr Assad’s forces had used such weapons.
That was a disheartening reaction to a terrible massacre that killed, according to American estimates, 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. No wonder Mr Al Assad has continued using chlorine gas. He knows he can get away with it.
It’s difficult to understand what is behind this western attitude. One may fall back on the glib argument that it’s all about racism, that Syrians count little for Europeans or Americans. But such an explanation is unverifiable and doesn’t explain why Washington, which alone has the power to unite and spur western action on Syria, has so readily abandoned its stated aims.
That America does not want to get drawn into the Syrian conflict is understandable. What isn’t is that while America proclaims to all its vision of a better international environment, its actions in Syria have not only belied this, they have actively undermined it. Such hypocrisy is morally repugnant. So much for strong and sustainable American leadership.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
date : 24/06/2015