The New York Times’ David Sanger had an interesting observation in a recent article on Vladimir Putin’s bizarre foreign policy. Russia, Sanger wrote, is a “declining economy with the gross domestic product of Italy.” So how come it manages to push around the United States, which has the world’s biggest economy and, as President Barack Obama put it just last week, “by a mile, the greatest military on earth”? Because the United States has, by a mile, a president who is cautious to the point of timidity and prudent to the point of appearing heartless.
The crisis at the moment is Syria and the siege of Aleppo. The city’s hospitals have been bombed by so-called “bunker busters.” Other civilian centers have been targeted. Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations’ aid chief, called the “indiscriminate bombing and shelling … a level of savagery that no human should have to endure.” Syrian government forces, aided by Hezbollah and Iran on the ground and by Russia in the air, are poised to finish the job. Late last month, a U.N.-organized humanitarian convoy was bombed by Syrians and Russians or Syrians with the aid of Russia. The U.S. retaliated to this hideous outrage by protesting and, on Monday, suspending talks with Moscow.
Obama’s refusal to back up demands for a cease-fire with a threat of force has driven Secretary of State John Kerry to distraction. He confessed his frustration to some fellow diplomats and his words were promptly leaked. Kerry now stands, as has been suspected for some time, in opposition to his president’s policy. But what it has done to Kerry is minor compared to what it has done to Obama himself. It has led him into hallucinatory explanations of his decisions. He mangles the facts, jumbles chronology and, in effect, holds himself guiltless for Syria’s approximately 500,000 deaths, 8 million internally displaced persons and a tidal wave of immigrants that has destabilized Europe.
“Is this a situation in which inserting large numbers of U.S. troops will get us a better outcome?” the president asked last week at a CNN town hall meeting held at Fort Lee, Virginia. It’s not a bad question. But here’s a better one: Who ever suggested such a course? No one of any consequence. Obama’s national security team once recommended supplying and training the rebels whom Obama originally dismissed as “former farmers or teachers or pharmacists who are now taking up opposition against a battle-hardened regime.” Obama listened to his CIA director, his secretary of state, his secretary of defense and the military brass and said no. End of discussion. Boots on the ground were not recommended.
At Fort Lee, the president also accelerated Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria: “There have been critics of mine that have suggested that, well, if early enough, you had provided sufficient support to a moderate opposition, they might have been able to overthrow the murderous Assad regime. The problem with that is, as we’ve seen, that Assad regime is supported by Russia, it’s supported by Iran.”
Well, yes, the Syrian regime was always supported by Iran and Russia. But it took a while for the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and Russia to actually join the fight. Back when the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Obama could have done something and, in fact, implied he would do something. “The time has come for President (Bashar) Assad to step aside,” Obama declared. Assad not only failed to step aside, his forces later smeared Obama’s famous “red line” all over history by using poison gas on civilian centers. By then, 2013, Assad, Putin and other assorted bad guys had taken the measure of Obama: weak.
I understand that no one likes to admit failure, especially one that has cost so many lives. Bill Clinton says he will never forgive himself for not intervening in the Rwanda genocide. Obama will be similarly stalked.
The president still can act. He can back up his secretary of state, impose a humanitarian corridor and, at the very least, air-drop medical supplies and food. The U.S. already has airplanes in the area fighting the Islamic State. A humanitarian air drop is not a belligerent act, and Russia should not read it that way. Obama can do that because America has the ability to do that, because America does not stand by and watch innocent people get slaughtered and because America can tell Russia they both have a moral obligation to save lives. That is not a red line. It is a bottom line.
Richard Cohen is a columnist for the Washington Post.