Two pieces from Tablet magazine most vividly represented our rigorous attention in 2016 to the Syrian crisis, and America’s moral collapse there. This article originally appeared on February 17, 2016. Read the other piece, “Obama’s Syria’s Striptease,” by Tony Badran, here.
Even die-hard supporters of President Barack Obama’s “realist” approach to foreign affairs are nauseated by the White House’s Syria policy. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a vocal supporter of the nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, is fed up with nearly five years of the “fecklessness and purposelessness” of a Syria policy that “has become hard to distinguish” from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s. “Syria is now the Obama administration’s shame,” Cohen wrote last week, “a debacle of such dimensions that it may overshadow the president’s domestic achievements.” Ambassador Dennis Ross and New York Times military correspondent David Sanger also published articles excoriating Obama’s policies in Syria. There is a military solution, it’s “just not our military solution,” a senior U.S. security official admitted to Sanger. It’s Putin’s.
Perhaps most damning of the stink-bouquets was a Washington Post op-ed from former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff. “It is time for those who care about the moral standing of the United States to say that this policy is shameful,” they wrote. “If the United States and its NATO allies allow [Putin and his allies] to encircle and starve the people of Aleppo, they will be complicit in crimes of war.”
What made the Post op-ed particularly striking is that Wieseltier and Ignatieff are both friends and former colleagues of Obama’s U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power. Ignatieff taught with her at Harvard, and Wieseltier published early parts of her book on genocide, A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which described in searing detail the strategies by which American officials typically deflect responsibility for the massacre of innocents. Power’s 600-page book consists largely of case studies of how the United States responded to 20th-century genocides, like the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, the Nazi Holocaust, Cambodia, Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaigns against the Kurds, Bosnia, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Kosovo. As Power notes in the book’s conclusion, “What is most shocking about America’s reaction … is not that the United States refused to deploy U.S. ground forces to combat the atrocities. For much of the century, even the most ardent interventionists did not lobby for U.S. ground invasions. What is most shocking is that U.S. policymakers did almost nothing to deter the crime.”
There can be no doubt that the murderous campaign of sectarian cleansing that Assad and his allies Russia and Iran have been waging against the Sunni Arab population of Syria is a crime of historic proportions—the first genocide of the still-young 21st century, or, if you prefer the language of a recent U.N. report, state-sponsored mass extermination. Power herself has documented it all on Twitter:
1/3 Reports and video out of #Syria utterly horrific. Civilians, including kids, victims of an apparent chlorine gas attack.
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) March 20, 2015
2/3 This is why #UNSC passed res affirming the weaponization of chlorine as viol of CWC&UN res. Long past time for attribution&consequences
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) March 20, 2015
3/3 Asad regime is only power with helos. Reports again are that gas attack came from the air. If it flies like a duck…
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) March 20, 2015
Syria gov has slowed aid access to trickle in Aleppo. Russia must push regime to let in aid instead of bombing ppl pic.twitter.com/a7ojydALuO
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) February 10, 2016
Horrific rpts from #Madaya: Assad blocking food for months, UN cites credible rpts of starvation. Promises not enough—regime must let aid in
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) January 7, 2016
Assad denies using barrel bombs, but what he clearly isn’t using is the Internet: http://t.co/mmLcvsKdCr
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) February 11, 2015
Even as we condemn ISIL, we also must condemn the Assad regime & reject the argument that we must partner w/ regime to confront terrorism.
— Samantha Power (@AmbassadorPower) February 12, 2015
Power’s tweets are a legitimate response to a horror that is unfolding daily. What’s so odd about them is the Twitter account they come from belongs to the American Ambassador to the United Nations, who has been a member of Obama’s inner circle since before he hit the campaign trail in 2007. Hence, Ambassador Power’s doe-eyed outrage against the policies that she helped to shape in her time in the White House and whose current public face is literally Samantha Power leaves a casual observer a bit slack-jawed. Is the real Samantha Power being held prisoner in the U.N. basement with access to Twitter, while a Davos-friendly version of Arya Stark from Game of Thrones impersonates Power in policy meetings? Or was her book on genocide actually a clever way of advertising her services to a future U.S. administration, which—if history is a fair guide—would need someone to deflect responsibility for standing idly by while hundreds of thousands of innocent people were murdered?
As Ignatieff and Wieseltier suggest, Power is a handmaiden to war crimes. And no number of righteous tweets or broadsides against Russian diplomats can hide how the White House has used her monumental 2002 classic, A Problem From Hell, as a how-to manual in how to enable genocide and still maintain your soulful cred. From the very beginning when Assad opened fire on peaceful protesters, to the present, as Russia bombs hospitals, the United States has done nothing to stop Assad and his gory friends—and all the faux-outraged tweets and Putin-blaming in the world will not distract a single Syrian from the plain facts that the United States was not only indifferent to the destruction of their country, but has also diplomatically enabled their horrific suffering.
Remember when Obama warned Assad not to use chemical weapons against his own people? That, said Obama, “might change his calculus”—i.e., the use of chemical weapons against civilians would be such an obvious and grotesque violation of the international laws and norms and a host of arms agreements that Assad might actually manage to shame commander-in-chief into stopping a genocide. Obama was told repeatedly that Assad was using chemical weapons, but when the butcher of Damascus dared Obama, the leader of the free world blinked and said he wasn’t really going to take military action after all. Even after continued attacks with chemical agents, Obama boasted about getting rid of Assad’s chemical weapons’ arsenal, as if unconventional weapons was the only way the Syrian tyrant could process human flesh through his meat grinder. As Power notes in the conclusion to her book, “on occasion the United States directly or indirectly aided those committing genocide.”
It is hard to imagine any future edition of A Problem From Hell being complete without a chapter on Syria. Instead of helping to topple Assad, the mass-murdering goon who drops barrel bombs on civilian areas, the White House launched a phony train-and-equip program that required rebel fighters to sign a document that they wouldn’t use their weapons against the dictator who was murdering their families. The administration’s anti-ISIS campaign has allowed Assad to ignore ISIS nearly altogether and focus his attention instead on destroying other opposition groups, and indiscriminately targeting Sunni towns and villages. The White House’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has now put additional tens of billions of dollars in Iran’s coffers, which it is now free to use in supporting Assad’s genocide. Indeed, it is partly because Obama was so eager to secure a nuclear agreement with Iran that he disdained any efforts to stop Tehran’s ally from slaughtering Sunnis when Assad first started nearly five years ago.
How have the president and his aides managed to avoid being held accountable for their complicity in a five-year-long orgy of mass murder that has now taken an estimated 470,000 Syrian lives? In her book’s conclusion, Samantha Power lists a number of popular and relevant tactics that U.S. policymakers have used over the last century to avoid being tagged as accessories in crimes of war.
In the past, she notes, one of the key ways to shirk responsibility was to claim that no one really knew what was going on. But that doesn’t work in the age of the 24-hour news cycle and social media. In fact, long before ISIS became known for its depredations, the Assad regime posted YouTube videos in order to terrorize opponents and keep them from trying their luck against regime forces. So, everyone knows what’s happening in Syria.
One way around that inconvenience, as Power shows, is to “overemphasize the ambiguity of the facts.” The White House has used this strategy to great effect, especially early on, when it claimed that there were “no good guys” in Syria. Sure, they’re victims of a genocide, yes, but when they fight back to save themselves, they kill people, too. Some rebel fighters facing government air bombardment and poison gas attacks, and the torture and murder of their families and friends, have even turned fanatical. As Obama himself argued, there’s no guarantee the people being slaughtered will ultimately prove any friendlier to their neighbors or America than Assad is. I mean, better the devil you know, right? Maybe they’re all terrorists, even the little kids.
Another tactic Power lists is to play “up the likely futility, perversity, and jeopardy of any proposed intervention.” The Obama Administration clearly read Power’s pages quite carefully: The only alternative to doing nothing, they repeated, over and over again, was a massive ground invasion by U.S. forces—an option that no one actually ever proposed. As Power warns in her book: “The United States should not frame its policy options in terms of doing nothing or unilaterally sending in the Marines.” But that’s exactly what the administration did, in order to justify doing nothing.
Samantha Power quite literally wrote the book on how the American superpower must stop genocides when it has the power to do so. Why hasn’t she resigned?
Yet there were—and are—clearly other options. In A Problem From Hell, Power suggests that the United States “should set up safe areas to house refugees and civilians, and protect them with well-armed and robustly mandated peacekeepers, airpower, or both.” Lots of people did argue for a no-fly zone or buffer zone to protect Syrians fleeing from Assad’s killing machine. But the White House said no. Mighty Syrian air defenses were too much for the U.S. air force, said former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
There was a time when virtually all of Obama’s national security staff advocated arming the rebels to take down Assad. The president was against it. He derided the opposition. As he told Thomas Friedman in August 2014, “This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.” But the reality is that those doctors, farmers, and pharmacists are still out in the field, and might already have stopped the genocide against them on their own, if the president of the United States had been moved to help them help themselves.
Last week John Kerry blamed members of the anti-Assad opposition for walking away from the negotiating table at Geneva, even as Aleppo was being bombed by Russian planes. He told them to expect another three months of bombing, which, he said, would “decimate” them. When the opposition petitioned Kerry to do more, he replied: “Don’t blame me, go and blame your opposition.” Then he continued: “What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia?” This represents something new in the history of American acquiescence to genocide, and something not even Power documented in her handbook—a U.S. official demanding pity from the victims of a genocide whose suffering he thinks can be alleviated by surrendering to the people who are killing them.
The entire White House, from the president on down, is complicit in the crimes that Power tweets about. As the person who quite literally wrote the book on how the American superpower must stop genocides when it has the power to do so, why hasn’t she resigned? Maybe genocide isn’t actually that important after all, when measured against things like a trade deal with Asia. Perhaps, like the predecessors she describes in her book, she “assumed that U.S. policy was immutable, that their concerns were already understood by their superiors, and that speaking (or walking) out would only reduce their capacity to improve the policy.” Power’s book was taken at the time of its publication as a powerful warning against the moral price that our country pays for such delusional rationalizations. It will be hard to read it the same way again.
To read more of Lee Smith’s foreign policy analysis in Tablet magazine, click here.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).