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Obama Fiddles . . .

While Russia arms Assad.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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As he explained in Cairo, Obama believes this is a “time of great tension between the United States and Muslims around the world” that is “rooted in historical forces that go beyond any current policy debate.” Obama’s prime directive was to reestablish “mutual interest” and “mutual respect” between the United States and Muslim peoples, and to assert that “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” He promised also to be “respectful of the sovereignty of nations” and to engage in negotiations with Iran “without preconditions and on the basis of mutual respect.”

Ironically, as Obama yearned for the “engagement” and realpolitik of a bygone era, the Muslims of the greater Middle East yearned for political change. Less than 10 days after the Cairo address, Iranians took to the streets to protest what they believed was a stolen election. The White House went silent. Iranian protesters responded by chanting, “Obama! Obama! Either you are with us or with them!” Hoping for a deal to slow Iran’s nuclear program, the administration kept its open hand extended to the mullahs even during Tehran’s crackdown.

Obama’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 was equally uncertain, even regarding the revolt in Libya, which the White House now counts as one of its foreign policy successes. In February 2011, protesters in Benghazi and elsewhere surged into the streets, and by early March, the administration declared that Qaddafi had “lost his legitimacy to lead, and must go.” But just as a no-fly zone was established, the administration announced that the United States would fall back into a supporting role once NATO assumed command. The president welcomed getting rid of Qaddafi but added that “broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” The administration would countenance regime change, but didn’t want too many American fingerprints on it, and certainly no responsibility for what might come after. 

The Syria conflict—now officially designated as a “civil war” by the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief—has similarly paralyzed Obama, and with far greater consequences. After the uprising began in March 2011, it became apparent that Russia and China would prevent any repeat of the Libya resolution at the U.N. They permitted a nonbinding peace plan drafted by former secretary general Kofi Annan, which has had no effect whatsoever, and a condemnation of the regime’s indiscriminate use of heavy weaponry. In short, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, U.S. Middle East policy is once again subject to larger great power issues, and in this case, what amounts to a de facto veto by Moscow, backed by Beijing.

This week’s contretemps over the Syrian use of Russian-made attack helicopters underscores both the emerging proxy war character of the conflict and the Obama administration’s unwillingness to consider effective measures. Specifically, the White House has refused to back the Syrian opposition against an Iranian ally in a war that is ongoing, is certain to continue, is likely to expand, and whose outcome will matter. 

“We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last week. The attack choppers would “escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she contended, rightly. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov countered that it was only sending weapons for “self-defense.” No regrets. In fact, the Russians are extremely pleased with themselves—they’re being courted just as in the Soviet days.

The Chinese have tried to remain in Moscow’s shadow, but they are equally opposed to taking actions that would put the Assad regime in jeopardy. This is not just the usual Chinese whinging over “sovereignty.” This week French foreign minister Laurent Fabius proposed escalating economic sanctions on Syria, but in Beijing, spokesman Liu Weimin responded that “China disapproves of one-sided sanctions and pressuring.”

The Syria standoff has already become a full-blown balance of power tussle, sucking in regional and global powers on both sides. China, Russia, and Iran back Assad, while the Syrian opposition is funded and armed by a variety of Gulf states. Turkey and Iraq are both inundated with Syrian refugees, and Ankara is increasingly angry that the Assad regime hosts Kurdish terrorists. In sum, Syria is becoming exactly the kind of nightmare that the region and the world have come to expect the United States to prevent, and which, indeed, until now, American administrations of both parties have taken great pains to preclude.

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