Sorry, Syria

The news from Syria is all bad.  The various UN ceasefire proposals and peace plans have been abject failures — predictably.  And while diplomats talk, and talk, and talk, the Syrian people are getting slaughtered by their own government in a series of bloody massacres.  The latest incident came last night, when Syrians in the town of Deraa were shelled, apparently by government forces, even as UN observers try to investigate an earlier atrocity.

The Syrian situation is one of those instances that reveal the remarkably cold-blooded nature of foreign policy in the modern world.  Unfortunately for the Syrians, their dusty country is one of the few places in the Middle East that lacks oil reserves.  Nor is it a place that has served as the launching ground for successful terrorist attacks.  As a result, for all the hand-wringing, neither Europe, nor the United States, nor any other country has sufficient skin in the game to do anything to depose the evil Assad regime and stop the awful civilian carnage in Syria.  And any effort to take military action under the umbrella of the UN inevitably will be blocked by the Russians and the Chinese, who aren’t fans of international interventions, anyway.

Compare events in Syria to what happened in Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  Life in Syria is as violent and repressive as it was in any of those countries before regime change was imposed at the point of a sword.  The difference is that the United States and other governments viewed those other countries as involving crucial geopolitical interests and had the ability, through their own resources and the NATO construct, to take affirmative steps to address those interests.  The Syrian situation doesn’t invoke such crucial interests, and therefore the Syrian people will continue to suffer and die.

I’m not advocating that America act unilaterally for humanitarian reasons; our human, financial, and military resources are finite, and I don’t think we can or should serve as the world’s policeman whenever tyrants begin campaigns of indiscriminate killing in distant lands.  I’m just noting that the sad futility of the Syrian “peace plans” and escalating rhetoric of the diplomats exposes the ultimate hollowness of most multi-national organizations, like the UN and the Arab League.  Why aren’t Syria’s oil-rich Middle Eastern neighbors taking steps to stop the bloodshed in their own backyard?  The Arab League should be ashamed.

The Man, The Mission, And The Message

Kish and I listened to President Obama’s speech tonight about the United States’ participation in the international coalition efforts in Libya.  I am glad that he decided to speak to the American people about the nature and scope of the United States’ mission in Libya, because I think Presidents have a responsibility give the American people an explanation whenever they determine that military force is necessary.

I say this not because I think people should second-guess the President’s reasons for action — in my view, performing the kind of complex foreign policy balancing that tonight’s speech described is one of the reasons why we elect a President in the first place — but because I agree with the President that the decision to use military force is one of the most momentous decisions any President can make.  The sons and daughters of Americans are put at risk whenever the United States military is summoned to duty, and it is not unfair to require a President to explain why that risk is necessary.  Indeed, if a President were unable to bring himself to address the nation to provide such an explanation, that probably would indicate that the decision was not a well-reasoned one.

I do not understand why President Obama delayed in providing his explanation about Libya.  Perhaps he wanted to wait until he could announce a date certain for the hand-off of responsibility to NATO forces, or until the military situation was clarified.  In any case, I am relieved that he has now spoken to the nation and described the basis for his decision.  Having that explanation, all Americans now can decide whether we agree with the President’s reasoning and can draw our own conclusions.  That is how democracy should work.

 

Foreign Policy Blues

There has been a lot of criticism from the right, and some other quarters, of President Obama’s recent decision to scrap elements of a missile defense system for Eastern Europe.  The move has bitterly disappointed our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, who were to host elements of the system and viewed it as important to their security against a resurgent Russia.  Mark Steyn’s typically acerbic view of the matter is here. This article argues, on the other hand, that the disappointment felt in Eastern Europe is actually the product of a series of failures, many of them by NATO, to live up to promises and agreements.  In other words, the writer suggests that the bitter reaction in Eastern Europe to the missile defense decision should not be laid totally at the feet of the Obama Administration.

Still, foreign policy is a constant challenge, as nations jockey for position in pursuing what they believe to be in their own best interests.  Any national leader worth this salt is regularly assessing other leaders and drawing conclusions about whether those leaders can be pushed or prodded, threatened or cajoled, or moved by guilt or fear into changing a position or staying their hand in the face of a new challenge.  When Vice President Biden predicted, during the recent presidential campaign, that President Obama would be tested by some foreign policy crisis early in his presidency, I think Biden was thinking in this terms.

When world leaders look at America today, in the wake of the missile defense system, what conclusions will they draw?  Will they see a country that seems to be looking inward, focused on domestic issues like health care and the economy, to the exclusion of international affairs?  Equally important, when world leaders look at Eastern European countries, or other erstwhile American allies, will they see nations that are perhaps a bit less confident in the prospects of getting help from the West, and therefore more susceptible to sabre-rattling?   These are the kind of realpolitik evaluations that are not really affected by well-crafted speeches.  We need to show our allies that they can count on us in a pinch, and we need to make sure that other contestants on the world stage know that as well.