(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/04/9520065-large.gif)The Syrian civil war is now more than a year old. The Syrian army has killed some 10,000 people—and counting. Although Damascus has made promises about ceasefires and diplomatic settlements, it’s not in Bashar Assad’s DNA to countenance any challenge to his rule. Recall that his father slaughtered 20,000 Syrians to staunch a 1982 uprising. The younger Assad’s army—what one observer describes as a “hellish killing machine”—is on its way to eclipsing that grisly milestone. For instance, Assad’s henchmen ushered in this week by attacking refugee camps, firing across the Turkish and Lebanese borders, and making a mockery of the latest UN peace plan. In response, President Barack Obama has offered little more than promises of non-lethal aid and intonations about establishing “a process” to transition to a “legitimate government.” Inaction in the face of such butchery is easy to criticize, of course. Since America cannot intervene everywhere, presidents have to draw the line somewhere. But it’s difficult to understand why the president has chosen to draw that line at Syria, especially if we consider Obama’s response to the Libyan civil war just one year ago.
Recall that in announcing his decision to intervene in Libya (by bombing Qaddafi’s forces), the president declared, “We cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults on cities…where innocent men and women face brutality and death at the hands of their own government.”
That sounds like a fairly accurate description of Syria. Yet this time around, there’s no help on the way for the rebels—at least not from Obama. Instead of a Libya-style air war, Obama’s reaction to Syria is beginning to look a lot like Washington’s non-response to the mangling of Bosnia almost two decades ago. As Senator Joe Lieberman recently observed, “I feel like we are reliving history.”
When Yugoslavia began to descend into civil war in 1992, Western Europe seized upon the crisis as an opportunity to prove it was ready to keep the peace. It was, as one European diplomat famously declared, “the hour of Europe.”
Washington took the hint and stepped aside. It would be a fateful decision. Europe’s confidence in itself and in the UN was badly misplaced. As historian William Pfaff notes in The Wrath of Nations, “In the Bosnian crisis, the United States didn’t act, so everyone failed to act.” He argues that international organizations like the United Nations “proved an obstacle to action, by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.”
The result: some 200,000 dead and millions of refugees.
As a candidate, then-Governor Bill Clinton had promised to end the bloodletting by arming the outgunned Bosnian Muslims and striking Serb artillery with U.S. airpower. But before he could take any such action as president, Clinton was blindsided by Somalia. And so, the slow-motion genocide continued for 31 months under Clinton.
The low point came when Dutch peacekeepers in the laughably misnamed UN Protection Force allowed Serb militiamen to enter the so-called safe haven of Srebrenica and liquidate 7,000 Bosnian men and boys. It was a microcosm of the entire war: The Serbs were by and large the aggressors, the Muslims were outgunned and thus easy prey, the UN was worthless, the Europeans were helpless, and the Americans were absent.
Only after Washington reasserted itself in late 1995, after Srebrenica, did the situation on the ground change. When U.S. military might was finally brought to bear against Serbian paramilitaries, the one-sided war came to an abrupt end, just as many had predicted.
This is not to say that a Bosnia- or Libya-style intervention in Syria is the right course of action. After all, there are risks to getting in and risks to staying out.
Intervening makes post-Assad Syria the West’s problem—and could even open the door to more toxic problems. Egypt reminds us that what replaces autocracy may not be worth celebrating.
Not intervening, on the other hand, will allow Assad to strangle the opposition and extend his rule, like his father and Saddam did for decades, like the mullahs have in Iran, like all dictators do when their subjects’ cries for help go unanswered.
Moreover, no two international crises are identical. Indeed, there are many differences between Bosnia circa 1995 and Syria circa 2012. One of the most significant is how directly what’s happening in Syria could impact America’s wider national-security interests.
The primary motivation for intervening in Bosnia was always humanitarian. Syria, on the other hand, is one of those unique cases where conscience and national interest overlap: Protecting the people of Syria—a humanitarian motivation—by targeting the Assad regime would deal a blow to Syria’s patron and partner in Iran—a national-security interest.
Another important difference between Bosnia and Syria is how U.S.-led coalitions of the willing have built an impressive record in recent years of punishing and/or ending regimes that flout basic norms of behavior: In addition to Bosnia, that record includes Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. (The fact that brutal governments remain in power in places like Sudan and North Korea should not overshadow the fact that there are fewer such governments today than there were, say, 15 years ago.)
While Obama has been largely silent and inactive on the situation in Syria, he wasn’t silent this time last year, when he ordered U.S. forces to take part in NATO’s air war against Qaddafi.
“In just one month,” Obama boasted, “the United States has worked with our international partners to mobilize a broad coalition, secure an international mandate to protect civilians, stop an advancing army, prevent a massacre, and establish a no-fly zone with our allies and partners. To lend some perspective on how rapidly this military and diplomatic response came together, when people were being brutalized in Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a year to intervene with air power to protect civilians. It took us 31 days.”
If it was fair for Obama to take that swipe at the Clinton administration, then it seems fair to point out the shortcomings in Obama’s own approach. It is Obama’s incongruent response to these congruent crises that—according to his own standard for action—makes his Syria policy a failure.
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