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Thursday, May 19, 2011

On the Obama Administration's Inconsistency on Syria and Libya

In his foreign policy speech on May 19, 2011, U.S. President Barak Obama attempted to justify his administration’s policy of selective military action against violent rulers. “(W)e cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.” The Obama administration was assuming that facilitating the removal of a ruler who is violently betraying his people must involve a multi-year American occupation, as in Iraq. However, the case of the U.N.-sanctioned international coalition enforcing a no-fly-zon and protecting civilians in Libya proffers a counter-example.

Obama stated, “(W)e saw the prospect of imminent massacre, had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people's call for help. Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed. The message would have been clear: keep power by killing as many people as it takes.” The problem is that by the time the U.S. President uttered these words, Assad had killed perhaps up to a thousand unarmed protesters in Syria. In June 2011, after Assad's troops had killed an estimated 1,100 civilians, U.S. Secretary of State Clinton could only muster a warning. "The legitimacy that is necessary for anyone to expect change to occur under this current government is, if not gone, nearly run out." How many civilians did Qadhafi's troops kill before his right to rule was expunged by the U.S. Government? The irony is that whereas in Libya the protesters had relatively quickly become armed rebels, the Syrian protests remained largely in the protest mode. Ethically, it is worse to kill unarmed protesters than armed rebels. 

Even though Obama admits that “the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens,” he claims it is sufficient for the U.S. to have “condemned these actions, [while] working with the international community [to step] up our sanctions on the Syrian regime - including sanctions . . . on President Assad and those around him.” Sarcastically, I am tempted to ask whether sanctions is sufficient, given what Qaddafi had done to provoke a no-fly-zone and bombing to protect civilians amid an armed civil war.

In addition to the red herring that any U.S. involvement must somehow match the Iraq case, it is misleading to suggest that the U.S. “can’t” stop every ruler who turns on his people as if other empires or independent states could not also take the lead. To be sure, the American military has its areas of expertise, but this does not mean that the U.S. should or must take the predominant role globally. Working with other empire-scale countries as well as independent states, the U.S. Government could provide moral leadership as the world takes a firmer stand than mere sanctions when a ruler is killing hundreds of protesters. At the very least, the credibility of the U.S. Government would be much enhanced were it more consistent in regard to similar cases. Inconsistency can provoke possible explanations hinging on partiality and self-interest.

For example, some foreign policy experts say the White House has not called for the world to unite in a military action against Assad not because he has been any less violent than Qaddafi, but because Syria is “critical to Obama’s attempt to end Iran’s nuclear program and to promote Arab-Israeli peace,” according the USA Today. If this explanation is correct, then the U.S. Government has put manipulation above Obama’s own pledge to stand up for democracy over tyrants.

Still others argue that Assad has the support of other Middle East regimes and that the elite in Syria is not fractured—making the case different from that in Libya. However, this is not an argument that Assad’s betrayal has been any less than Qaddafi’s; rather, the argument is that more obstacles exist to stopping Assad than Qaddafi.  However, standing up for human rights is not for the timid. In other words, it is not necessarily quick and easy. It does not say much about a leader’s character if a little difficulty is enough to resort to sanctions. In the case of Syria, that the E.U. had already joined the U.S. in leveling sanctions against the Syrian officials suggests that an international coalition could be strong enough to give the Syrian protesters a viable chance to topple the regime, even given the size of Assad's military.

In Libya, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil suggested that it is in the interests of the U.S. and E.U. to support such causes. "The United States and the European Union should know that we are a righteous people," he said. "We are fighting for a better future and they will not regret helping us." Perhaps the question of consistency comes down to how important human rights are to the American and European officials who have competing goals.


Click to add a question or comment on the Obama Administration on Libya and Syria.

Sources:

Transcript: Obama’s Foreign Policy Speech, May 19, 2011.

Oren Dorell, “Syria, Libya Merit Different U.S. Policies,” USA Today, May 16, 2011, p. 5A.

Michelle Faul, "EU Opens Diplomatic Office in Libya's Rebel East," MSNBC.com, May 22, 2011.

Jay Solomon, "Syrian Violence Tests U.S.," The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2011.