“Stop them damn pictures. I don’t care what the papers write about me. My constituents can’t read. But, damn it, they can see the pictures.”
Change “can’t” to “don’t” or “rarely,” and the plaintive words of the corrupt William Magear “Boss” Tweed in reaction to the scathing cartoons of Thomas Nast in 1870s New York City might just as easily be placed on the lips of President Barack Obama, as images of dead Syrian children washing up on Turkish beaches awaken a dormant American public to a humanitarian abomination and policy catastrophe. For an administration relying on public indifference to sustain a policy rich in rhetoric and devoid of action, the pictures are a damnable inconvenience.
Faced by reporters suddenly jolted out of Syria fatigue, White House spokesman Josh Earnest recently followed his boss’s formula in defending the indefensible. Yes, Earnest admitted, there may have been alternatives to doing nothing as Iran and Russia helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad do his worst to 23 million Syrians. But, according to Earnest, they “would have subjected the United States to a whole host of more significant risks, including more significant outlays of funds to fund essentially a war in Syria. It certainly would have put tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of American troops in harm’s way on the ground in [Syria].”
Is it possible that anyone in this administration really believes that invasion would have been the inevitable consequence of accepting the 2012 recommendation of Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, and Martin Dempsey — then the defense secretary, secretary of state, CIA director, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, respectively — that the United States take the lead in training and equipping Syrian nationalists capable of fighting both Bashar al-Assad and a growing al Qaeda presence in Syria?
Does any administration official — including the president — think that if the United States had destroyed the Assad regime’s instruments of mass murder two years ago, after the Syrian regime had crossed Obama’s chemical red line for the 14th time, that U.S. ground forces would have been obliged to occupy Syria?
The Obama administration believes none of this. It caricatures opposing viewpoints and misrepresents policy alternatives because it simply cannot acknowledge error. Having decided to leave millions of Syrians subject to barrel bombs, starvation sieges, mass terrorism, and collective punishment so as not to offend Iran, the administration (or more precisely, Europe) now reaps the whirlwind of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Yet instead of changing course, it whines about how much worse things would have been had other decisions been taken.
It comforts Europeans not at all to hear Earnest tell them that “the United States certainly stands with our European partners.” And yet, how many European leaders over the past four years have upbraided Obama for not making good on his own words? How many have challenged the rote recitation of the argument that “there is no military solution for Syria” as a substitute for an objectives-driven Syria strategy? How many have demanded that Washington join them in addressing the problem at its source by throwing sand into the gears of Assad’s mass murder machine?
France has consistently urged its American ally to change course. Precious few other European leaders, however, have stepped up to push Washington to adopt a more effective Syria policy.
The failure of the West to offer a modicum of protection for Syrian civilians is not cost-free. That which today passes for “the West” was content to see the crisis fester and metastasize so long as it stopped at Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. But now Europeans see the price in terms of desperate humanity surging in their direction. The cost to the United States is even more profound: Its reputation is being threatened like never before. Will anyone even feign surprise if reports of Russian military intervention on behalf of Assad prove accurate? Precisely which aspects of Obama’s Syria performance over the past four years would now dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from making such a move?
One can imagine the Obama administration will respond to Russian intervention by blandly saying that war is not the answer to the Syrian crisis and that Assad has lost all legitimacy and really ought to do the decent thing and step aside. Yet those talking points will not alter the cruel reality of facts on the ground: Assad’s continued unlimited war against civilians in areas dominated by nationalist rebels will strengthen the hemorrhage of humanity toward Europe while driving more and more Syrians into the arms of the Islamic State. Yes, Russian combat support for Assad will finally put the lie to the Kremlin’s claim of being opposed to the Islamic State, just as Iran’s support for the atrocities of its client, Assad, has revealed Tehran’s actual position toward the terrorist group’s bogus “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
But where does this leave an American president committed militarily to degrading and destroying the Islamic State? Will he continue to chase and implore Russia in search of a political solution that would throw Moscow’s man out of the presidential palace? Will he continue to assure Iran that nothing the United States does in Syria should be construed as anti-Assad? How can he do these things and win the battle against the Islamic State? Every barrel bomb dropped is a victory for the caliph — and a gift from his best friend, Bashar al-Assad.
The administration may be on the verge of affording a degree of protection to Syrian civilians, as an unannounced by-product of protecting the troubled “Islamic State-free zone” adjoining the Turkish border. Anti-Islamic State coalition aircraft will be operating with greater intensity in northern Syria, and Syria regime aircraft should stay clear of areas in which they have a long history of barrel bombing civilian residential neighborhoods. But “should” is not synonymous with “must.” What if regime aircraft defy coalition warnings? Will they be grounded? Or will another red line have been crossed?
The Obama administration does not want pictures of dead children stirring up public outrage over what is happening in Syria. But those “damned pictures” might oblige it to offer real protection to defenseless Syrian civilians — even if it does so furtively, fearfully, and grudgingly. And if Europeans now believe, at long last, that the problem they are facing needs to be addressed at its source, they should plan on doing more than just holding Uncle Sam’s coat. They, after all, are dealing with the living problem, not just pictures of dead children.
By Frederick C Hof