Syria is in the midst of a gruesome civil war that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands and forced the displacement of millions more. The last seven days have showcased the worst, most shocking examples of violence in the conflict’s history. In Syria’s most violent city, Aleppo, citizens are being “shot on the spot” by pro-government forces on the streets and in their homes. As a heartbreaking warning signal, activists around Syria are posting their final goodbyes to social media sites.
Even worse is that this conflict has been long-lasting. Of course, the severity of the crisis has drastically intensified recently, but the tensions in Syria are not at all new. Since 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has carried out some of the worst crimes against humanity in modern history. There have been multiple opportunities for the United States to become involved, in hopes of ending the conflict.
But time and time again, the United States has refrained.
We have, of course, made promises. In August of 2012, President Obama drew a “red line” around Syria, establishing that Bashar al-Assad using chemical weapons on citizens would warrant United States action.
Assad crossed that line in 2013 when he indiscriminately slaughtered 1,400 citizens with sarin gas. President Obama, however, stayed uninvolved. In a flip-flop that has seriously tarnished Obama’s foreign policy legacy and hurt America’s position in the world, the United States made the decision to refrain from carrying out airstrikes against the Assad regime.
But Mr. Obama’s largest mistake was not ignoring his initial red line. It was his refusal to draw any more red lines in the future, despite the heinous atrocities being carried out daily by the Assad regime.
Since this red line, Syria has delved deeper into a cesspool of uncontrollable chaos. Russia has now become involved. Supporting the Assad regime and pro-government forces, Vladimir Putin has propped up Assad, empowered ISIS, and bombed civilians in schools and hospitals. During the course of this decisive action from Russia, the United States has stayed uninvolved.
This is not an anomaly–it’s a perfect embodiment of the President’s worldview. Barack Obama has been remarkably reserved when faced with prospective civil wars, terrorist threats, and even provocations that could threaten the United States homeland. Take his inaction in Benghazi, his (lack of a) response to Russia invading Ukraine, or when he gave ISIS the moniker of the “JV team.”
This is, more than anything, a manifestation of President Obama’s worldview that nothing in the international community can possibly threaten the United States. The Obama administration is smugly satisfied with the United States’ current role in the international community and indifferent to its potential decline.
Such smugness can make sense. After all, the United States is indisputably the world’s primary arbiter of peace. But with this title comes a fitting responsibility–one of leadership. Unfortunately, President Obama’s complacency as it relates to America’s declining power, and his refusal to preventatively respond to threats, endangers both our place as an international leader and the very peace that we create.
Mr. Obama’s ignored ‘red line’ in Syria serves as the most glaring example of how his worldview has contributed to instability and chaos in already unstable regions.
This is the cost of inaction. And its implications are too serious to be ignored.
We have the seen the cost of action. Action that works well is given little to no credit, but action that fails–like the Iraq War–is roundly criticized, and serves as a talking point for non-interventionists for decades to come.
But the cost of inaction is often overlooked. When leaders fail to act, the tragedies that follow are written off as unfortunate and worthy of prayers. Rarely is our reaction ever a critique of a retrenched international community.
Of course, it is naive to assume that the United States is capable of stopping all tragedies around the globe, and it is definitely wrong to argue that America is responsible for these atrocities.
But the United States has the power to act. We have the capabilities to promote international peace–which can’t be said of many other nations. We should use this power, whenever possible and strategically smart, so that we can prevent more Aleppo’s in the future.
In other words, being able to flex the United States’ foreign policy muscle is just as important as knowing when to use that muscle. President Obama, it seems, not only fails to flex this muscle, he refuses to acknowledge its existence.
But worse, Obama’s inaction in Syria sets a precedent. President Obama’s underreaction in the face of an emboldened Putin and an unchecked Assad will only galvanize them further. At the very best, this will create a more anxious international community, and at worst, a Russia that is so fearless of consequences that they support authoritarian regimes all over the world.
Thus, the cost of inaction is cyclical. Under President Obama, the United States refuses to act boldly in the face of international provocations. This sends a signal to tyrannical leaders, like Vladimir Putin, that their meddling will go unchecked. Then, when these leaders stir up more trouble, the United States maintains its underreaction. In the end, this creates a weaker United States, a more powerful Russia (or Iran, North Korea, or China), and a less safe international community.
When the Rwandan genocide occurred in 1994 and the world refused to act, we said “never again.” We said the same about Darfur in 2003. When we say “never again” for Aleppo, will we hold true to our word? It’s time to learn the lessons of the past, and pay attention to the cost of inaction.