On Monday, April 23, President Obama officially announced the creation of the “Atrocities Prevention Board” (APB): a comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to atrocities. On the same day, the APB Board of Directors held its first meeting, chaired by Samantha Power, who declared that the APB would “coordinate action across the entire government on stopping genocide and liaise with the NGO community.” And on that same day, President Obama appeared at a ceremony at the Washington Holocaust Museum, a most fitting place to announce the inauguration of the APB, in respond to criticism about Obama’s having not done enough to stop the atrocities in Syria, and against earlier administrations that sat idly by during the war crimes and genocide in Rwanda and Darfur.
Obama spoke in forceful language there, promising:
“The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up. So with partners and allies we will keep increasing the pressure so that those who stick with Assad know that they are making a losing bet.”
“In short, we need to do everything we can to prevent these kinds of atrocities, because national sovereignty is never a license to slaughter your own people,” Obama said. “Remembrance without resolve is a hollow gesture. Awareness without action changes nothing.”
Inspiring words, superficially. But before we celebrate a new “never again” broadcast from Washington, it is important to look at some of the details of this new government initiative.
The first problem is Syria[i] (we will examine the second problem, APB leadership, in part II of this article).
Numerous critics have asked why innocent blood spilt by Qaddafi in Libya warranted military intervention but many thousands more innocents dead and dying in Syria do not. Thus Wiesel asked poignantly, in his introductory words to Obama, “So in this place we may ask: Have we learned anything from it [the Holocaust]? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the Number 1 Holocaust denier Ahmadinejad is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state.”
And Obama answered as he has in the past, with a non-answer: “The United States would continue increasing diplomatic, political, and economic pressure on the Assad regime, but said the U.S. commitment to end atrocities “does not mean we intervene militarily every time there is an injustice in the world.”
Obama’s lame assertion that the US does not need to intervene does not really answer the question. We did not need to intervene in Libya either, but we did.
But perhaps the President had purposely chosen a lame and almost risible response (we do not need to so we won’t, and instead we’ll do things that we know will not work, like tighten sanctions even though they are not working) precisely in order to avoid an honest answer. Perhaps the President does not want the honest answer made public…at least not until after his victory in the coming election.
The honest answer may be more akin to something like this. Libya was an easy mark, little risk, good PR. Syria, however, is different. Its army is more formidable than Qaddafi’s. It is known to be heavily armed with shoulder-fired missiles obtained from Russia and China. And perhaps most important, it is closely allied with Russia and Iran. Obama does not want to alienate either. It is likely that he is preparing for some post-election agreements with Russia concerning nuclear disarmament and elimination of our missile defense systems (remember that “hot mic” incident with Russian president Medvedev?), so he does not want friction with this future partner now.
And regarding Iran, Syria is closely allied with Iran too, and serves as Iran’s proxy in the non-Shiite part of the Fertile Crescent. Obama does not want to precipitate another major armed conflict, especially not with Iran, prior to the elections. If the U.S. were to strike Syria, Iran would probably be forced to take some sort of action, not only to support its proxy and ally, but also to protect its base of operations in Syria and Lebanon, a base which it has been building for more than 30 years. Moreover, Assad’s enemies include the Muslim Brotherhood whose ultimate goal is the creation of a Sunni Caliphate – obviously in competition with Iran for global Muslim domination. So Iran could not stand idly by as the USA intervenes on behalf of Iran’s enemies to bring about the demise of Iran’s ally, and thus an Iranian counter-response would be almost assured. It is also important to recall that Obama has been venting jeremiads against Israel for the very thought of a military strike against Iran. Obama would then be in the untenable position of striking Iran to protect Syrian Arab Muslim civilians from Assad’s massacre, but not striking Iran to protect Israeli Jewish (and Muslim and Christian) civilians from Iran’s nuclear massacre[ii].
Obama doesn’t want voters to think he’s indifferent. So he creates the APB in order to show that he is doing something; but it is also something that Assad and Ahmadinejad can easily ignore. Even with the best of intentions and impressive names and the imprimatur of our President, it is obvious to even the most naïf that boards and committees and NGOs do not stop men with guns. So no harm is done to Obama’s plans to avoid confrontation with Iran and to maintain good relations with Russia, good relations being needed for reasons that Obama does not want to reveal until after his re-election.
In fact, Obama has worked hard over the past year or so to make sure that he can continue to avoid confrontation while maintaining plausible deniability. First, the Syrian opposition was deemed too fragmented, so how could Obama know whom to back? Then, the White House warned the opposition not to take up weapons, lest it forfeit the moral high ground that Secretary Clinton claimed it had captured. Then there was the problem of al-Qaeda infiltrating the Syrian rebels’ ranks; but Obama failed to note that it was Assad who first made common cause with al-Qaeda, causing Obama no consternation. And now, with his new APB, Obama has created plausible deniability for his inaction, even though it means losing an opportunity to advance American vital interests by helping to bring down Iran’s chief regional ally.
And perhaps worst of all, Obama’s endorsement of the doomed Annan initiative means that the US position is effectively the same as Moscow’s. The White House has even told its own allies, especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, not to arm the opposition, thus aligning the USA with the Russians.
So the Iranians continue working on a nuclear bomb, and the White House warns Israel against bombing the reactors where the bomb is being made. Bashar al-Assad continues to kill Syrian civilians with Russian weapons and Iranian money, and Obama warns our allies not to interfere and aligns us with Russia and Iran; and just to make sure that no one thinks he is soft, our President unleashes – an advisory board.
As Sen. John McCain recently observed, “… good bureaucratic organization may be necessary to stop mass atrocities and gross human rights abuses, but it is not sufficient. Ultimately, ending violations of conscience requires the political will and moral courage of world leaders, especially the President of the United States. Unfortunately, that will and leadership are lacking in the case of Syria today.”
[i] For good summaries of the problems and contradictions in Obama’s Syrian policy see “Syria: It’s Not Just About Freedom”; “While Syria Burns”; “What’s Wrong with Having an Atrocities Czar?”; and “The Spirit of Kellogg-Briand.”
[ii] Special acknowledgement to Dick Nelson, USNA ’64, for part of this analysis.
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