Fred Hiatt, the Washington Post‘s op-ed editor, had a blistering and accurate column the other day which noted that President Obama has achieved something striking in Syria — not only has he “presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions,” but he has also “soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.”
There is no popular mobilization of the kind we saw a few years ago to “Save Darfur” or even to stop Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa, despite the fact that the Syrian civil war has killed at least 250,000 people and displaced at least ten million more, or roughly half of Syria’s population. Because our Nobel Peace Prize-winning president can’t bestir himself to do much about the killing fields of the 21st century — and neither can aides such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power who once made the case for humanitarian intervention and genocide prevention. Neither, it seems, can anyone else.
Yet much as the world would like to ignore the ongoing catastrophe in Syria, it can’t simply turn away. The chaos that has gripped that country has given rise not only to a humanitarian disaster with few modern parallels, it has also created the worst refugee crisis since World War II and the worst terrorist problem since the demise of Osama bin Laden. With ISIS sucking in recruits from across the world and with Syria exporting refugees who are literally dying to reach safety, this disaster cannot be ignored. The death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi — drowned on a beach trying to escape to Greece — has become one of those iconic photos that will forever define this tragedy for posterity.
Thus all of the European countries, led by Germany, are having to grapple with how many refugees they will have to take in. And even countries such as Britain and France, which so far have not been involved militarily in Syria, are getting involved in air strikes to blunt the terrorist threat that is growing there. Britain just launched a drone strikes that killed two ISIS fighters with British nationality and vowed to launch more if necessary. Moscow is getting involved too, with Vladimir Putin expanding Russia’s military presence in support of the odious Assad regime.
All of these countries, for good or ill, are struggling to fill the vacuum that has been created since 2011. But none will succeed unless the U.S. shows leadership, which hitherto has been lacking. If you want to see what a post-American world looks like, Syria is it. This is what lack of American leadership produces: a catastrophe of unimaginable and growing scale.
“Perversely,” as Fred Hiatt trenchantly notes, “the worse Syria became, the more justified the president seemed for staying aloof; steps that might have helped in 2012 seemed ineffectual by 2013, and actions that could have saved lives in 2013 would not have been up to the challenge presented by 2014.”
So, I don’t expect the president do anything more in the future than he has done in the past. Which is not much. But Obama should at least understand that what has transpired in Syria on his watch will be as much of a stain on his record as the early disasters of the Iraq War or the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina were a stain on the record of his predecessor. Obama can’t blame Bush or anyone else for this nightmare. He owns Syria. Unfortunately, that’s scant comfort to the growing numbers of victims who are suffering from an abdication of American leadership.