How many people must die in a civil conflict before President Obama decides that American intervention is warranted?
Syria is our most urgent test case.
While President Obama has demanded that President Bashar Assad relinquish power and has denounced his ugly repression countless times, the administration has not gone beyond tightening sanctions against the regime as the death toll, which now stands at over 5,000, continues rising. Last month, The Cable reported that National Security Council senior director Steve Simon was quietly formulating new options for assisting the beleaguered Syrian opposition. Rumors in Washington say that Obama is preparing to ask Turkey to be more assertive in helping the Syrian dissident army it is hosting to strike Damascus — more "leading from behind."
But day after day, the repression continues and the White House does not stir.
Of course, misery and civil strife are rampant elsewhere. The current record holder seems to be the Congo, where an estimated 2.7 million or so have been killed since civil conflict erupted in 1998.
While almost no one expects the administration to intervene everywhere to stop civilian slaughter, Obama has had to be more assertive in the Middle East, where oil, Israel and other key strategic interests are at stake.
Some 800 people had died in protests in Egypt last year when Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak, America's longstanding ally in the war on terror and partner in Arab-Israeli peace for decades.
Fewer than 300 Libyans had been killed when Obama declared a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in response to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's threat to raze Benghazi. The usually quiescent Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council had both urged the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya by that point. But what was initially justified as a NATO "humanitarian" mission to prevent civilian slaughter quickly morphed into close-air support for the Libyan rebels and the bombing of no less than 40 static targets throughout the country.
Given its earlier actions, Obama's hesitation on Syria is particularly striking, notes David Schenker, a former defense official for President George W. Bush now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He claims to be mystified by the lack of a more vigorous response to Damascus. Perhaps, as he has written, Obama's reluctance to intervene, like that of Bush before him, reflects concern about "what comes next" if Assad falls. Should Obama fear the rise of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Damascus more than he disdains the slaughter of mostly peaceful protesters?
Last November, Ivo H. Daalder, Washington's ambassador to NATO, set three conditions for intervention in Syria based on NATO's precedent in Libya. There had to be a "compelling situation" or demonstrable need for intervention. Also required were Arab legitimacy, say in the form of an Arab League endorsement, and an "international mandate," such as the U.N. Security Council resolution on Libya. In Syria, none of those conditions applied, Daalder asserted.
Yes, the hapless Arab League may now expand its useless 150 "monitors" in Syria. And while the Security Council is unlikely to authorize the use of force against Syria given Russian and Chinese opposition, how many more Syrians must die before Daalder and his boss consider the need to prevent such repression "compelling"?
Clifford May, who heads the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, says the administration appears to have no coherent or consistent policy in the strategically vital Middle East. Its intervention in Libya but not Syria to prevent civilian slaughter reflects what he calls "pure ad hocism." Robert Satloff, who heads the Washington Institute, says Obama is resisting tougher measures because "we got the humanitarian bug out of our system in Libya." Had Assad started killing protesters before Gadhafi did, he added, "we would be in Damascus by now instead of Tripoli."
Schenker, too, favors tougher action. The Muslim Brotherhood, with which the U.S. is now talking in Cairo and Tunis, could hardly be worse than Assad for American interests or for Syrians, he argues. Would the Brotherhood continue allowing shipments of arms and money to militant Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon as Assad has done? Wouldn't the Brotherhood be less of a stalking horse for the Shiite clerics of Iran, its traditional religious rival? And could it be more hostile to Israel than Assad's regime? Even Israel's ambassador to the U.S. says that Israel has no stake in Assad's survival.
But could a post-Assad government be even worse? In Egypt, while a dictator has been toppled, the army clings to power. And in recent parliamentary elections, the most anti-American fundamentalist Salafists gained almost a quarter of the popular vote and the Muslim Brotherhood is now poised to take power. Post-Gadhafi Libya is also still a mess, as the militias we encouraged refuse to cede weapons and power. Suppose Assad's ouster triggered the kind of sectarian violence that now plagues Iraq. For the Obama administration, this must clearly be a closer call.
But Bashar Assad may give Obama no choice if he continues emulating his father. Hafez Assad, the late unlamented Syrian ruler, bragged about having killed between 10,000 and 30,000 rebels in the city of Hama in 1982. But that was before cellphones, video cameras and Twitter. One would think that son Bashar would know by now that he cannot emulate his father's massacres and survive. But on Monday, he vowed to repress protesters, whom he labeled terrorists, with an "iron fist."
Will Assad have to threaten to raze Hama once more to force Obama's hand?