I'm stumped. The outgoing Nobel Peace Prize-winning president has confronted Russia over its cyber hacking of emails during the election. But he has turned a blind eye to Russia's overt support of Bashar al-Assad's slaughter of 500,000 Syrians, not to mention five million Syrian refugees and an additional six million Syrian homeless. Am I missing something?
Less than nine months into Obama's first term as president, he was awarded the 2009 Peace Prize in recognition, according to Nobel committee chair Thorbjorn Jagland, of the sudden improvement that Obama had on "the international climate." Here we are in Obama's last weeks and, well, "the international climate" speaks for itself.
To be fair, the chaotic and dangerous state of the world cannot be laid at Obama's feet. And the Iran nuclear deal has arguably made the world a little safer (although this remains to be seen, especially as Iran has been economically strengthened with the curtailing of sanctions, emboldening its financial and tactical support of Assad's military repression). With Russia supporting Assad and holding one of five permanent seats and veto power, the U.N. Security Council wasn't going to make any progress on no-fly zones, safe havens, or anything remotely useful in restraining Assad's horrific genocide (and the eventual Russian bombing that destroyed Aleppo). So it fell to Obama to take the lead on what was clearly a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe, which is presumably why he issued his "red line" warning in August of 2012 - the use of chemical weapons by Assad would trigger US intervention.
In August of 2013, when Assad unleashed chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb that killed 1,000 innocent civilians, Obama reneged on his red line threat. A last minute deal was struck with Russia to remove most of Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons and Obama opted for an indirect and non-interventionist policy of supporting moderate rebel groups, in the vague (and retrospectively naïve) hope that pressure could be applied to force Assad to depart so a new coalition government could take over. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians continued to be slaughtered by Assad's military subjugation.
Why did he opt for such soft-arm tactics in a civil war that was destroying innocent people and the cities such as Aleppo in which they lived? Obama will hopefully share his logic more thoroughly once he vacates his office, but insider speculation has focused on three concerns. First, he didn't want to embroil the US in yet another failed attempt to import some form of democracy in an authoritarian state, only to end up with the same messes he inherited following the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the mess he himself initiated in Libya. The American public's appetite for another foreign fiasco was limited and the political costs of intervention were high. Second, he didn't want to confront Putin directly, escalating conflict in a region where Russian support for Assad was explicit. Third, he didn't want to risk derailing the Iran nuclear treaty that was secretly being negotiated at the time.
All three of these reasons were legitimate, but they render his idle red line threat even rasher in retrospect. More importantly, the three reasons were easily superseded, I would argue, by the more pressing humanitarian necessity of intervening. While past US-led interventions should give pause to any Pollyannaish attempt to engender democracy in an authoritarian state, there are surely equally important lessons from the genocide in Rwanda, where the West turned its back as hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutu government. Some interventions are justified no matter how uncertain or messy the outcome - when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.
The complexities of foreign affairs render arm chair, second-guessing facile, unfair and unproductive. But as Obama frets about Russian cyberattacks, one can't help wonder if he is focusing on Russian misdemeanors in order to distract attention from his failure to address the massive warm crimes that Russia has been an accomplice to in Syria. Bill Clinton confessed that ignoring Rwanda was a personal failure on his part and one that he deeply regrets. We can only await Obama's post-presidency explanation of why he chose to ignore one of the greatest humanitarian atrocities of the past decade. The failure to mitigate Syrian war crimes must surely be one of his greatest presidential regrets. It ought to be.