Syria and Obama’s ‘Lead from Behind’ Doctrine

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In a move coordinated with our European allies and the United Nations, the Obama administration issued a statement on Thursday demanding that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down “for the good of the Syrian people.”

The US also slapped additional sanctions on the Assad regime, including freezing all Syrian assets under US jurisdiction, a ban on oil sales, and a bar to Americans having any business dealings with the regime. The “Big Three” of the European Union — France, Germany, and Great Britain — also issued a statement urging Assad “to step aside in the best interests of Syria and the unity of its people.”

The Syrian opposition hailed the international call for Assad’s resignation. Omar Idlibi, spokesman for the opposition network of Local Coordination Committees (LCCs) told the Global Post, “Now we can say the international community started to take responsibility for the crimes committed by the regime. They have lost confidence in the man they gambled on for five months.” The LCCs, made up mostly of young men, have been dodging Assad’s secret police for months, using social media tools to document the atrocities in Syria and relay images, video, and written reports to Western reporters.

Meanwhile, the United Nations was gearing up to increase the pressure on Assad by considering additional sanctions as well as referring Syria to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. A meticulously documented report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights details atrocities committed by Assad’s security forces, including several grisly massacres, systematic torture, and a list of more than 4,500 Syrians who are “missing.”

The announcement came as GOP presidential candidates criticized the president for poor leadership, believing the administration waited far too long to call for the Syrian dictator to step aside.

Why did it take so long? When the protests started in March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying, “There’s a different leader in Syria now. Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” The administration believed at the time that the protests would put pressure on the Syrian dictator to initiate changes in Syrian political society, forcing him to open a dialogue with the opposition.

This attitude turned out to be a product of wishful thinking rather than reasoned analysis. No sooner had Clinton made that curious statement did Assad begin his butchery. It wasn’t until late April that the administration issued its first set of sanctions against the Syrian regime. The second set, targeting Assad and his cronies, came two weeks later. It was shortly after that, on May 19, that Obama delivered his speech on the so-called Arab Spring, saying, “President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.”

Still short of calling for the Syrian strongman’s ouster, it wasn’t until July that Hillary Clinton claimed that Assad had “lost legitimacy.” This milquetoast statement by the administration stood until the beginning of this month — after 1,500 Syrians had already been massacred — when the US finally began to gather international support for Assad’s resignation.

Much has been made of the statement by an Obama national security staffer in a New Yorker article that the president was “leading from behind” on the Libya issue. The statement encompasses the worldview of the president and most of his advisers, who believe that the status of the United States as the only superpower in the world is detrimental to international relations and that we should be “first among equals” when it comes to building coalitions and consensus on world issues.

Clearly, our actions relating to Syria is another example of that policy. Rather than getting out in front of events and trying to influence them, the administration hung back, watching to see if other nations would take the lead in advocating what is clearly the moral course of action: putting pressure on Assad to leave. That it took five torturous months with Syrian tanks blasting their way into dozens of cities and towns killing thousands does not speak well of the “lead from behind” policy nor the president who oversees it. Obama’s statement roused analyst Michael Ledeen to write, “After months of slaughter, as jaws dropped all over what used to be called The Western World at the spectacle of an American leader who danced all around one of the clearest moral and strategic imperatives EVER, we finally get this [statement].”

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  • Micah

    One should not rush into war. Reason and patience are virtues. Perhaps you would like a repeat of Iraq.

  • Tony

    Why is it when a Democrat says, "Members of both parties believed that (Assad was a reformer)" is different than Republicans saying "Member of both parties believed that (Hussein has WMDs)." ?

  • Flipside

    Michael Ledeen is not simply an “analyst.” He is an Iran-Contra criminal and forger, a professional manufacturer of casus belli. Clearly, for Rick Moran, the USA has not declared war on enough of Israel’s enemies yet. Maybe Ledeen can discover some Yellow Cake in Syria too.

    • MixMChess

      You do realize that Israel (Ariel Sharon himself) advised America (Bush Government) AGAINST the invasion into Iraq and strongly cautioned America in its mission in Afghanistan?

      Of course, your accusation that Jews are behind another country's war is not at all original or new. The same allegations were made concerning Jews before the second and first world wars. This accusation was used to justify Russian pogroms and the Nazi Holocaust. Recall, war against Iraq has been a policy suggested by members of the Bush administration since the mid-nineties. To accuse Jews of instigating war is, frankly, anti-Semitic.

      • Flipside

        It may come as news to you, but Ariel Sharon does not represent all Jews in the world. Consider Benjamin Netanyahu, Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser, and the members if the American neocon press.

        • MixMChess

          "It may come as news to you, but Ariel Sharon does not represent all Jews in the world."

          No kidding, and nearly all Israeli Jews and over 80% of American Jews vehemently rejected the Iraq Invasion.

          Of course, the Bush administration had strong-minded leaders who developed a conservative, hawkish foreign policy and sought to invade Iraq since the 1990's. As Norman Podheretz points out you are believing the unbelievable:

          "…that strong-minded people like Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Rice could be fooled by a bunch of cunning subordinates, whether Jewish or not, into doing anything at all against their better judgment, let alone something so momentous as waging a war, let alone a war in which they could detect no clear relation to American interests."

          As even anti-Israel advocate Steve Zunes points out "there are far more powerful interests with a stake in what happens in the Persian Gulf region" than Jews and Israel. These include "the oil companies, the arms industry, and other special interests whose lobbying influence and campaign contributions far surpass that of the much-vaunted "Jewish lobby" and its allied donors to congressional races. Indeed, U.S. interests in the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf have existed for many decades and even pre-dates the establishment of modern Israel."

          You're peddling the `Protocols of the Elders of Zion' all over again.

          • Flipside

            B.S. Do you think the neocon coup d’etat is so far into the past that America has forgotten the names and ethnicities of its members?

  • Fred Dawes

    If people stood up against the Obama government you would see the Tanks and death in our streets and our cities would look like a sea of blood, let us not get into a hopeless war.

  • tomsextoyshop

    One should not rush into war. Reason and patience are virtues. Perhaps you would like a repeat of Iraq.