President Obama has, of course, condemned the violence. On Saturday, he called for a halt on the use of force against unarmed protesters (the UN and some European countries have made similar statements). But beyond such boilerplate, there has been little said or done in response to the violence. Compare that to Libya, where a similarly unpleasant dictator, after ordering the use of force against protesting civilians, spent his Saturday dodging NATO missiles fired into his leadership compound, while the U.S. agreed to deploy armed unmanned drones to the country. There has been speculation that these American drones might be used specifically to locate and eliminate Muammar Gaddafi.
Aaron David Miller, a retired State Department advisor, correctly identified President Obama’s strategy in the Middle East as being akin to a game of whackamole — the administration is confronted by a series of problems popping up all over the region, and does its best to address each of them in turn, with no overarching strategy guiding the decisions. This has been frustrating to both critics outside the Obama administration and to doves within it. The United States has gone easy on Syria and Bahrain, demanded ally Mubarak step down in Egypt after several embarrassing missteps, and bombed Libya. Perhaps the simplest explanation is the one suggested by Foreign Policy magazine: The administration itself doesn’t know what to do, and its response to each emerging crisis depends largely on whichever internal faction won the debate that day.
On the other hand, the answer to why the administration’s foreign policy decisions appear so crudely ad hoc may be much more straightforward: Obama has always been eager to follow a different path than George W. Bush, especially with Iran. While Bush did not hesitate to criticize Iran and argue for democracy across the Middle East, Obama has preferred instead to reach out to hostile regimes in an effort to cultivate diplomatic ties. Iran and Syria are joined at the hip — there has even been evidence that Iranian security forces are assisting Syrian troops in their crackdown against protesters. Tehran is clearly worried that it might lose one of its primary allies in the Middle East, and with it, easy access to its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies. Strong American action against Syria would enrage Iran — something Obama has already shown himself hesitant to do.
Thus, the Obama administration has opted to employ a clear double standard in its response to the Syria crisis — one that is so jarring, that even many of the president’s liberal supporters have been unable to withhold their criticism. Token sanctions and the odd public statement condemning the violence are the least Obama can do to retain his pro-human rights credibility. His decision to do no more might be one of the few things that Syria, Iran and Obama could all agree on.
Matt Gurney is a columnist and editor at Canada’s National Post. He can be reached on Twitter @mattgurney.
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