This may be the most surprising of President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy legacies: not just that he presided over a humanitarian and cultural disaster of epochal proportions, but that he soothed the American people into feeling no responsibility for the tragedy.
Starvation in Biafra a generation ago sparked a movement. Synagogues and churches a decade ago mobilized to relieve misery in Darfur. When the Taliban in 2001 destroyed ancient statues of Buddha at Bamiyan, the world was appalled at the lost heritage.
Today the Islamic State is blowing up precious cultural monuments in Palmyra, and half of all Syrians have been displaced — as if, on a proportional basis, 160 million Americans had been made homeless. More than a quarter-million have been killed. Yet the “Save Darfur” signs have not given way to “Save Syria.”
One reason is that Obama — who ran for president on the promise of restoring the United States’ moral stature — has constantly reassured Americans that doing nothing is the smart and moral policy. He has argued, at times, that there was nothing the United States could do, belittling the Syrian opposition as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth.”
He has argued that we would only make things worse — “I am more mindful probably than most,” he told the New Republic in 2013, “of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations.”
He has implied that because we can’t solve every problem, maybe we shouldn’t solve any. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked (though at the time thousands were not being killed in Congo). On those rare occasions when political pressure or the horrors of Syrian suffering threatened to overwhelm any excuse for inaction, he promised action, in statements or White House leaks: training for the opposition, a safe zone on the Turkish border. Once public attention moved on, the plans were abandoned or scaled back to meaningless proportions (training 50 soldiers per year, no action on the Turkish border).
Perversely, 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. The fact that the woman who wrote the book on genocide, Samantha Power, and the woman who campaigned to bomb Sudan to save the people of Darfur, Susan Rice, could apparently in good conscience stay on as U.N. ambassador and national security adviser, respectively, lent further moral credibility to U.S. abdication.
Most critically, inaction was sold not as a necessary evil but as a notable achievement: The U.S. at last was leading with the head, not the heart, and with modesty, not arrogance. “Realists” pointed out that the United States gets into trouble when it lets ideals or emotions rule — when it sends soldiers to feed the hungry in Somalia, for example, only to lose them, as told in “Black Hawk Down,” and turn tail.
The realists were right that the U.S. has to consider interests as well as values, must pace itself and can’t save everyone. But a values-free argument ought at least to be able to show that the ends have justified the means, whereas the strategic results of Obama’s disengagement have been nearly as disastrous as the human consequences.
When Obama pulled all U.S. troops out of Iraq, critics worried there would be instability; none envisioned the emergence of a full-blown terrorist state. When he announced in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” critics worried the words might prove empty — but few imagined the extent of the catastrophe: not just the savagery of chemical weapons and “barrel bombs,” but also the Islamic State’s recruitment of thousands of foreign fighters, its spread from Libya to Afghanistan, the danger to the U.S. homeland that has alarmed U.S. intelligence officials, the refugees destabilizing Europe.
Even had Obama’s policy succeeded in purely realist terms, though, something would have been lost in the anesthetization of U.S. opinion. Yes, the nation’s outrage over the decades has been uneven, at times hypocritical, at times self-serving.
But there also has been something to be admired in America’s determination to help — to ask, even if we cannot save everyone in Congo, can we not save some people in Syria? Obama’s successful turning of that question on its head is nothing to be proud of.
Fred Hiatt is The Washington Post’s editorial page editor.