BBC veteran Alan Hart reflects on the failure of leadership by Obama to effectively deal with the Syrian catastrophe at the time when a little common sense politics could have led to a peaceful solution
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the worst refugee crisis since World War II and one with the potential to overwhelm Europe as well as Lebanon and Jordan was gathering momentum (as it still is), the headline over an article in The New York Times by Roger Cohen was “Obama’s Syrian Nightmare”. Cohen’s opening shot was: “Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions.”
On the same day Patrick Cockburn said in an article in The Independent that “the mass flight of people will go on as long as the war in Syria and Iraq continues”. (He also noted that there were civil wars in nine Islamic countries and that “none of them shows any sign of ending”.)
I agree with Cockburn’s assessment and also that of New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof. His view of what is most likely to happen in Syria is the following:
As things stand, we’re on a trajectory for Syria to become even more horrific than it is now. Many experts expect the war to drag on for years, kill hundreds of thousands more people, and lead to an exodus of millions more refugees. We’re likely to see street-to-street fighting soon in Damascus, lifting the suffering and emigration to a new level.
In his article Cohen acknowledged that President Obama does have some important foreign policy achievements to his credit, most notably the breakthrough agreements with Iran and Cuba “which took courage and persistence”. (In parenthesis Cockburn added that how those two agreements will play out remains to be seen “but they constitute a victory over sterile confrontation.”)
But on Syria Obama has shown no courage or persistence. Cohen put it this way:
In 2011, Obama said, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” At that time, as events have shown, the president had no policy in place to achieve that objective and no will to forge such a policy. His words were of a grave irresponsibility.
Obama’s missed opportunity in Syria
The question arising is this: If Obama had had the will was there anything he could have done to end Syria’s nightmare when it became clear very soon after the start of the Arab Spring uprising there in March 2011 that Assad was not listening to the voices of his people and that there were no limits to the amount of death and destruction he was prepared to preside over to keep himself in power?
My answer is an emphatic yes. He could have had a dialogue with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in which he said something like the following to him:
What’s your price for working with Iran to oblige Assad to stand down, to make way for new elections which will be supervised by the international community with Russian and Iranian representatives playing a full part in the supervision?
Because containing and hopefully defeating perverted, violent Islamic fundamentalism was as much a priority for Russia as it was (ought to have been) for America and Western Europe, my speculation is that Putin’s response would have been positive. The prospect of it being positive would have been improved if Obama had also said to Putin that the US was not seeking to use the crisis to end Russia’s influence in Syria.
In other words, if Obama had demonstrated real leadership in such a way, I think the countdown to catastrophe for Syria, the region and possibly the whole world could have been stopped.
And that’s why I agree with Cohen. Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, “a debacle of staggering proportions”.
No leadership anywhere
If I could put a question directly to President Obama it would be this: Did the idea of seeking and securing Putin’s assistance in the way I have suggested ever cross your mind and, if it did, why did you not persist with it? And if it didn’t cross your mind, why not?
The message of the failure to address the causes of the refugee problem is that there are no real leaders anywhere on Planet Earth.
But events in Syria, and Iraq, and their consequences have proved that it’s not only in America that there’s a lack of leadership. The message of the failure to address the causes of the refugee problem is that there are no real leaders anywhere on Planet Earth.
What in my view is a “real” leader?
One who puts the best interests of his or her own country first but who does so within the framework of doing what is best for all of humanity.
I’ll conclude by saying that I have some sympathy for Obama. I believe that he would like to be a real leader. I even flirt with the idea (sometimes) that if he was free to put America’s own best interests first, he would put Netanyahu’s Israel on notice that if it did not end its defiance of international law and its denial of justice for the Palestinians it would be isolated and have sanctions imposed on it, with America participating in the sanctioning process.
But like all occupants of the White House, Obama is not free. He is the prisoner of a corrupt political system with what passes for democracy for sale to the highest lobby bidders.
Even the Editorial Board of The New York Times seems to be a little concerned about this corruption. On 13 September its editorial with the headline “Candidates afloat on a sluice of money” opened with the following thought:
When the Republican presidential candidates debate this week, it would help if voters could hear them offer detailed proposals for dealing with the 800-pound fat cat in the room – superrich donors who are making enormous, often untraceable contributions that undoubtedly tie candidates to special-interest agendas
Russia is now reinforcing Syria’s war machine because Putin seems to believe that Assad has to remain in power if the forces of perverted, violent Islamic fundamentalism are to be contained and eventually defeated. And Putin is not alone in this way of thinking. There are voices in the West which are saying that their governments must do the unthinkable and accept that Assad has to be part of a political solution.
My own speculation is that even if Obama did a 180-degree u-turn and agreed to this, crushing the forces of perverted and violent Islamic fundamentalism and putting them out of business completely may now be a mission impossible, because of the initial failure of leadership by Obama and others.