11

Comments

Facebook

Twitter

Google

send


Michael Young

Legacy of Ashes

Obama at a speech in August 2013.

If the Syrian regime ordered a chemical weapons attack against civilians in areas east of Damascus this week, it did so with remarkable impudence, given the presence in Syria of a United Nations team investigating the previous use of such weapons.

 

Or perhaps President Bashar al-Assad is just a good reader of the international community, believing he can commit such crimes and wag his middle finger at his foes, without any fear of serious retaliation. If so, he may be correct. Nothing Western countries, above all the United States, have done on Syria should frighten Assad.

 

But Assad’s fatal flaw is that he tends to overplay his hand. There is one thing that he cannot dismiss completely: that at some point the Obama administration will grasp the devastating impact of the fact that it has undermined, in just five years, the central role the United States played in the Middle East for over six decades, and that this will lead it to respond militarily in Syria.

 

Already many Arab states are behaving as if they care little what the United States says or does. The Egyptian military has virtually ignored American counsel about how to deal with the aftermath of President Mohammed Morsi’s ouster. The army has committed several massacres but still sees the Obama administration wrestling with whether to describe what happened on June 30 as a “coup.”

 

And the challenges to American power are becoming even sharper. With many in Washington calling on President Barack Obama to cut off aid to Egypt because of its army’s human rights violations, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have offered the interim Egyptian government some $12 billion in aid, and have taken other measures to bolster the military. This has effectively undermined American leverage over Egypt – in the form of the $1.5 billion in direct military and economic grants provided by the United States annually, as well as $1.3 billion from the European Union.

 

Last Friday, in patent defiance of the United States, King Abdullah declared on television, “The kingdom stands with Egypt and against all those who try to interfere with its domestic affairs.” Even blunter were the remarks of Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the foreign minister, who stated, “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will lend a helping hand.”

 

Though the Obama administration has pushed for the Saudis to take the lead in assisting the Syrian opposition, it is obvious that the kingdom is profoundly dissatisfied with American disengagement from the region. The Saudis worry most about Iranian power, but see that everywhere the Iranians are making gains – Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain – Washington has avoided getting involved.

 

When Prince Bandar bin Sultan traveled to Moscow recently to meet with President Vladimir Putin, one message was very plain: When you want to do business in Syria and the Middle East these days, it’s best to talk to the person in the Kremlin not the White House.

 

It is unlikely, as some have suggested, that Bandar visited Moscow on behalf of the Americans. On the contrary, everything about the meeting suggested it was a Saudi initiative, and resulted from Saudi displeasure with American detachment. While no agreement appears to have been reached, the meeting was likely the start of a process that may lead to a mutually beneficial relationship.

 

Russia, unlike the United States, is little concerned with democracy and, to the Saudis, is stubborn in defending its allies. Washington, in contrast, pushed its old friend Hosni Mubarak out of office without hesitation. Perhaps Russia can fill the strategic vacuum in the region that the United States has left, the Saudis may be thinking.

 

Beyond this, Obama must seriously consider whether America non-intervention in the Middle East will have other serious long-term repercussions for the United States. The reality in Syria is that people are getting killed in droves, and many Arabs will blame the Americans and Europeans for doing nothing to stop it. This could lead to an argument in the future that the West did not attack the Assad regime because it was complicit in its repression. This conspiracy theory could justify future acts of retaliation against the United States.

 

All this does not mean that the Obama administration will alter its behavior toward Syria. In fact, the chances are that it will not. But so precipitously has American influence in the Middle East declined under Obama, so openly has contempt been directed at the Americans, that the president must seriously think about his legacy.

 

Obama does not want to be the president who “lost” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the twin pillars of American influence in the region for decades. He cannot afford to become the man who looked the other way as Syrian children were murdered by weapons whose use Obama himself declared a “red line” the Syrian regime should not cross. 

 

America has rarely seemed so indolent in the face of barbarism. Is Assad right in expecting no better than empty posturing from Washington? Or will the most overrated of American presidents be shamed into action, if only to salvage his collapsing reputation?  

 

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star. He tweets @BeirutCalling. 

Obama at a speech in August 2013. (AFP photo)

"But so precipitously has American influence in the Middle East declined under Obama, so openly has contempt been directed at the Americans, that the president must seriously think about his legacy."

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Mark my words and remember this discussion 2 years, 5 years, 10 years from today. The US will be withdrawing from Syria with a chorus of condemnations by everyone, including its erstwhile allies of the 35 coalition states... YEs, the US is withdrawing from Iraq and from Afghanistan, but the legacy of those interventions in the minds of the peoples of the region is abysmal. Everyone in the Arab-Islamic world does not believe the fantasy narrative you describe (even if it may be true to some extent) as an explanation for the interventions. Arabs and Muslims peoples are generally backward and primitive, and they believe that the US is a satanic power bent on eradicating Islam and Arabism. The end of the US role in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a happy ending; it is the sad beginning of "what next?" in those two countries. Syria will be no different. Your own vitriol against the State of Israel - as if the US is this angel, except that it has fallen in its support of Israel - is ample proof of the mindset that prevails in the Middle East. The perennial pressure on the US by its Arab and Muslim "allies" is to abandon Israel for reasons that have more to do with the inability of the Arabs and Muslims to rise up and meet the challenges of modern times. The US will be blamed for everything that will happen in Syria, as it is blamed for all the ills of the world of the past 100 years. In fact, absent the US around the year 1000, the Arabs and Muslims TODAY blame the Europeans for the Crusades!!!! Let the Syrian tragedy continue, with the US actor now involved. The action is likely to get uglier, with no positive outcome in sight, unfortunately, other than the inevitable blame for everything will be laid squarely on the "naive" Americans now.

    August 27, 2013

  • Beiruti

    For all of those who see America as some sort of neocolonial power, just look at how it has conducted itself in Afganistan, we are leaving; in Iraq, we are leaving; in Syria, we have refrained; in Egypt, we have refrained; in Tunisa, we did not get involved; in Libya, we joined a NATO air campaign and did not put boots on the ground or affect the outcome of that conflict. This is not the pattern of conduct of a colonial power or an imperial power. We do not go to a country to stay, but to help solve a problem and then leave. The problem in Syria is that Assad is engaged in crimes against humanity in gassing his own people in an attempt to terrorize them into submission. Assad may use whatever means he thinks necessary to save himself, but he cannot violate international law in the process and gassing his own people is a violation for which the international community, led by the US must act or else, all international norms and laws become useless and open to violation by those who have so far refrained. This must be done to preserve the framework of international order. If not enforced, the rules become meaningless. Assad has forced this enforcement on himself and so enforcement he will get.

    August 27, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Hannibaal, "filthy" America, as you describe her with her colonialism and imperialism etc, is a misnomer. While the British and French were carving up the Middle East at the end of WWI, the US, who was by then a world power refrained from engaging in colonialism or imperialism in the Middle East and for that, much credit was given. Only with the establishment of the State of Israel and American slavish tending to its needs to the derrogation of the needs of the neighboring regional states has the US record in the region suffered. To answer your question, why the US and why not others. In the region, the other states of the Arab League are equally ready, willing and able to conduct the type of survival campaign as is being waged by the Assad Regime, if necessity requires. Therefore they cannot condemn conduct in which they themselves would engage if placed in a similar circumstance as Assad finds himself. As to the broader Islamic world outside of the MENA states, such as Indonesia, when was the last time that you can recall that Indonesia stepped up to bring relief to another people? This is a question I would pose to you. In the Western world, the United States is still recognized as the leader. No one will act if the United States does not. Turkey has not acted to date because the US has been opposed to action. Now that the US will act, at least 35 other states have said that they will join a coalition against the Assad Regime's use of chemical weapons. Yes, Syria has become a sesspool. Someone has to clean it up. The American people have a tradition of stepping up to do the dirty work that others refuse to do. We stepped in to end the carnage in France in 1917, we stepped in to take on the Nazis in 1942 and the crimes against humanity that they perpetrated. We do the Peace Corps and send Doctors without Borders into the world to perform humanitarian work. This is America, not the "filty" America that you mentioned.

    August 27, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Beiruti: All your arguments notwithstanding, you have failed to answer the simplest question I have posed here and elsewhere: Why the US? Why, of all powerful nations on earth, including the nuclear club members China, Russia, France and Great Britain, as well as other very powerful, populous and rich - to whom also much was given - Arab and Islamic countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and others... why is the US the only recipient of such love, admiration, and expectation (by people like you) to intervene when hell breaks loose in such an Arab and Islamic cesspool as Syria? Why the US? Again I repeat myself: There is no statute or code, or even a greater moral obligation by the Judeo-Christian West to assist an Arab-Islamic country solve a dispute (in which both sides have committed egregious acts) than, say, a fellow Arab and Islamic country that is adequately powerful to do the job? Not to belabor the discussion, but why can;t the august Arab League, led by the Custodian of the Noble Sanctuary, Saudi Arabia, organize an expeditionary military force that will overwhelm both sides of the Syrian conflict and bring resolution to it? It is the moral thing to do by nations that are - in principle - no lesser nations than filthy America with its colonialism, imperialism, decadence, and such other attributes that Arabs, Muslims, and even some Europeans, are so fond of labeling it with?

    August 27, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Whether certain members of the Opposition in Syria are al Qaida or not is not settled. Some Nusra forces, it has been reported here on this site, are clients of the Assad Regime that have been deployed previously in Iraq and in Lebanon (Nahr el Barid) and there is a likelihood that Assad has deployed client Nusra forces in Syria as a countermeasure to cause the international community not to fund or send arms to the Opposition. This countermeasure, to the extent that it has been used has been quite effective, you must agree. It is not unheardof in that part of the world for such countermeasures to be used. Israel uses them all the time. Iran and Hezbollah have both used them as has the Assad Regime. Many car bombs that went off supposedly against Syrian Regime targets were set off by the Regime itself to build political support or to bring dishonor on the Opposition. The Opposition does the same. It is how the game is played out there. So is there a case for US involvement?? I still say that there is and that Michael Young's point remains well taken. When there is a duty to act, and the country upon whom the duty falls fails to act, then there is fault to assign and a legacy to tarnish.

    August 26, 2013

  • Beiruti

    To say that the US should assume no more responsibility in the world than say, Rwanda, would make little sense. Rwanda is barely able to exercise its sovereignty inside its own borders. So the question is not one of equality or not, all states are not equal in power, duty and responsibility. Your issue is not with whether the US should act, but how the US should act in international affairs. Should the US act in the Syrian Civil War? The answer is, as you have said, no, we should not intervene with a purpose of causing one side or the other to win. We should not act with an eye toward creating an American friendly regime. Both such objectives are in derrogation of the rights of the Syrian people who may not wish either outcome to result. However, this is not my point. I do not argue that the US should intervene for the purpose of causing one side or the other to win, but rather to vindicate an international rule of law that neither side should engage in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in the prosecution or defense of this civil war. To the extent that the United States can enforce the international writ against such practices, it has a duty to so act, or else be complicit in the violation of these international convention. At times, only the US can act and this gives the US a distinct international role to play. Just as the President of the US, though he has as many inalienable rights as I have, he is under a special set of duties as President that I do not have. He can decide, whereas I am not in a position to decide. When you have the power to act and fail to act, this is the same as acting and working to affect a certain outcome.

    August 26, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Hanibal-Atheos. In the same sense that all human beings are born equally endowed by their Creator with the same inalienable rights, yes, the sovereignty of one country is entitled to the same respect as the sovereignty of another, regardless of the relative wealth or poverty, power or dependency of the state. However, in reality, all nations are not equal, just as all persons are not equal. Relative wealth, power, natural resources, political systems and military power make some states moe powerful than others though each state has the same soverign rights as the next. Like individuals, some are rich and powerful and can make decisions that affect millions, like say the President of the United States as compared to an assembly line worker, whose decisions can only sometimes affect only his immediate environment. Using your analogy to the UN, even there, some states, Members of the UN Security Council, are "more equal" than others, since the vote of one member can veto the collective judgment of the rest of the sovereign state members. There is an adage, that to whom much is given, much is expected. America is a country that is blessed with wealth and power. Granted, in the past when the country is not led well, those powers can be misused or even abused. But also, in the past, when the country is led well, the US has used its power and wealth for good purposes, such as rebuilding Western Europe after WWII, bringing about the UN, helping with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and establishing a whole body of international law to govern all sovereign states.

    August 26, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Beiruti: All nations ARE equal. That is why they each have a vote in the General Assembly. Your premise is that because the exercise of sovereignty is flawed in certain countries (e.g. Syria), then other countries (whose own exercise of sovereignty is at best dubious, e.g. the US, Russia, China, etc.)) should intervene. You then call the US "leader of the international comunity". I am not sure in which code or statute you found this, or who appointed the US to this role. When, in the not so distant past, the US did intervene, everybody screamed bloody murder. What Obama is showing the world is that the US will not intervene in Syria SIMPLY BECAUSE IT CAN, as it did under George Bush. Nations have responsibilities to themselves and to others. People (e.g. the Syrian people) have a responsibility to liberate themselves and to suffer for their freedom. The notion that the US or anyone else have to be the policemen of the world is ludicrous and extremely dangerous. The Syrian rebels must show the world that they are worthy of the freedom they claim to be fighting for, and to do that is simple: Put aside your differences, organize like decent civilized rebels with a cause, and fight a fair war against your dictator. They way things are now, the Syrian rebels are simply disorganized Islamic radical terrorists who would not hesitate one second before replacing the Assad dictatorship with a Sunni Taliban-like dictatorship. Obama is right. He should not be helping such people. They should help themselves first.

    August 26, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Hanbaal, the premise of your position bears a flaw. All nations are not equal. Each may share in the outward signs of sovereignty, but scrape the surface, and see, that sovereignty does not translate equally to all the peoples of the world. Human rights in all of the countries are not equal. Regimes in certain countries, in order to retain power, exercise any and all means to do so, while in others, those in power concede to the will of the majority as voiced in free and fair elections. And the winners of those elections agree to abide by the same rules as expressed in constitutions as those who they have defeated by election abided. One cannot equate the exercise of power in Egypt or Syria to that exercised by those in power in the US, France, Germany or the UK. And the people know the difference. One party rule means that those whose interests are not represented by the party that rules must make their voice heard from the street where they are subject to brutal repression. While in multi party democracy, those out of power, at least have a voice in the halls of power. In Syria, the US need not intervene for the purpose of created an American clone or client state. No, the purpose of an intervention is to halt the regime from using genocide and crimes against humanity as tools to retain power. These tactics violate international conventions established in the UN and the ICC where the international community has an interest. And the US has a role to play as leader of the international community.

    August 25, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Obama remains right on track of being the first American President to treat all nations equally and to assert the final end of colonialism. American does not have to be the world policeman. America does not have to be the bully. America has tired of intervening in other countries' affairs, only to be ostracized for neo-colonialism, for "naively" believing it can export its democracy...We all know the refrain. No point repeating it here. What Obama is doing is finally laying the ground for the equality of all nations in assuming their own responsibilities in the crises, massacres, wars, dictatorships, horrifying human right abuses, they themselves create and perpetrate. The fact that Prince Saud Al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister states, “Concerning those who announced stopping their assistance to Egypt or threatening to stop them, the Arab and Islamic nation is rich with its people and capabilities and will lend a helping hand,", is ample proof that Obama's policy is working. Why can;t the filthy rich Saudis, Kuwaitis, and other Arabs FOR ONCE take up the responsibility of cleaning the Arab house? If history has taught us anything, it is that American power rests in the technological ingenuity and economic mastery of the American people, and NOT in its brute military prowess. Thank you, President Obama, for charting a historic course in the journey of nations. As we say here, the dogs bark, but the caravan passes.

    August 24, 2013

  • Beiruti

    Obama is proving to be the wrong man at the wrong time to be President. He is governing with proposals that are like Eisenhower Republicans, but due to the perceptions people have of him, they consider him to be a raving socialist whose every domestic proposal must be blocked at all costs, even to threats to shudder the US Government, until the blight of his Presidency has come to an end. In foreign policy, his purpose is disengagment. His world view of the US is that we have been a bully in the world and now that he stands at the top of the National Security Apparatus, he is determined to change this image of the US as the World Bully. What he does not comprehend is that this is merely the perception. His perception of the US is as wrong as other's perception of him. He is no raving socialist and neither is the US a World Bully. We stand for international order, and against the stort of thing that is happening in Syria. When the US does not act, no one acts and the international order is broken and people suffer. He finds himself unwilling to commit to help others, even when it is US National Interests that we do so. Yes, it is a US National Interest that we not allow genocide or crimes against humanity to occur. Just ask former President Bill Clinton who allowed Rwanda to happen on his watch. It was his greatest regret. The one word to describe Obama now -- Useless.

    August 23, 2013