Impotence Abroad

Hillary Clinton says that the Obama administration can’t do anything about Bashar al-Assad. They can’t make him step down, and they can’t stop him from massacring women and children, as he did last week in Houla. “The Syrians are not going to listen to us,” Clinton said last week. “They may listen, maybe, to the Russians, so we have to keep pushing them.”

The secretary of state’s hedging is instructive. Maybe Assad will listen to Russia. Maybe Russia will force out Assad. Clarity is the outward expression of resolve, but Clinton’s uncertainty is the rhetoric of impotence, a condition the White House has imposed on itself. It signals to both adversaries and allies that they are free to act on their own because the White House is unable to shape outcomes.

If the Syrian conflict turns into a full-scale civil war, says Clinton, it’s Russia’s fault. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, fears the crisis may spread to the rest of the region and that the international community therefore “had better do something” about it. Obama’s secretary of defense, meanwhile, can’t imagine how the United States could take military action in Syria without U.N. authorization. “My greatest responsibility,” said Leon Panetta, “is to make sure when we deploy our men and women in uniform and put them at risk, we not only know what the mission is, but we have the kind of support we need to accomplish that mission.”

In other words, the administration believes America is incapable of acting on its own to defend and advance its own interests.

(…)In reality, the administration chose the course of passivity. It’s not Russia’s fault that the White House handed off its Syria policy to Moscow. And you can’t blame Russian president Vladimir Putin for not wanting to end a crisis that has boosted Russia’s standing. Moscow is now the destination for any regional or international power that wants to do something about Syria. Moscow is understandably basking in the attention. Prestige is a key part of any political and diplomatic arsenal, and serious statesmen try to acquire it.

The above article was published in The Weekly Standard Magazine’s issue of June 11th, 2012, Vol. 17, No.37.

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