Here’s how President Barack Obama explained his policy in Libya: “In this particular country — Libya — at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence.”
Judging by the administration’s tepid response to even ghastlier violence in Syria, this “unique ability” was the critical determinant in Libya — not the moral imperative to prevent more bloodshed.
An international coalition that included the Arab League was in favor of airstrikes in Libya, the rebels were united and it was a relatively low-risk, high-yield engagement. Conversely, Syria has more robust air defenses and its religious makeup — as well as the opposition — is dangerously stratified.
But Syria is more troubling than Libya in every conceivable way. There are more than 8 million internal and external refugees and almost 140,000 people have perished, compared with 1.5 million refugees and 30,000 deaths in Libya.
Beyond the revolting human cost, there are serious strategic concerns. Al-Qaida is becoming more entrenched and intends to use Syria as a base for future operations. The entire region is being destabilized by the worst refugee crisis in recent history. Sectarian tensions have been inflamed by Saudi and Iranian proxies, spurring violence in other parts of the region. Yes, Syria is a more difficult situation, but there’s a lot more to lose.
Obama sounded impressively authoritative when he declared to the American and Libyan people, “As president, I refuse to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.” There’s no shortage of excruciating images from Syria, either, but Obama continues to wait. Assad’s chemical weapons may be neutralized, but the regime is happy to go about the business of slaughter with conventional weapons (clever ones, too, such as barrel bombs filled with shrapnel and hot oil).
Blatant rhetorical inconsistency serves as a good warning — never take high-minded presidential reassurances at face value. This goes for “rejecting the forces of tyranny” or “anchoring global security” as well, comments Obama made in his speech last September about chemical weapons in Syria. Yes, the canisters, shells and gas are now secure. The people of Syria and our interests in the Middle East, on the other hand, aren’t. Let’s be honest about it.
— Kansas City Star, Feb. 23