When New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, a man who finds much to applaud in the presidency of Barack Obama, denounces the president’s Syria policy so unequivocally, his words are well worth noting.
It is refreshing to see someone who is presumably liberal holding the president accountable for one of his greatest failures. After all, most Democrats think that the fault lies entirely with George W. Bush.
To be fair, in blaming Obama for the Syria debacle Cohen is laying down a predicate. He is saying that since we are responsible we should be taking in many more Syrian refugees. That much said, one can disagree with his effort to guilt trip the country while still noting the cogency of his accusations.
He begins by describing the situation in Aleppo, a city that is currently besieged by the Syrian Army, with the help of Russia:
Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is now virtually encircled by the Syrian Army. A war that has already produced a quarter of a million dead, more than 4.5 million refugees, some 6.5 million internally displaced individuals and the destabilization of Europe through a massive influx of terrorized people is about to see further abominations as Aleppo agonizes.
Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria. It is already the Munich.
By which I mean that the city’s plight today — its exposure to Putin’s whims and a revived Assad’s pitiless designs — is a result of the fecklessness and purposelessness over almost five years of the Obama administration. The president and his aides have hidden at various times behind the notions that Syria is marginal to core American national interests; that they have thought through the downsides of intervention better than others; that the diverse actors on the ground are incomprehensible or untrustworthy; that there is no domestic or congressional support for taking action to stop the war or shape its outcome; that there is no legal basis for establishing “safe areas” or taking out Assad’s air power; that Afghanistan and Iraq are lessons in the futility of projecting American power in the 21st century; that Syria will prove Russia’s Afghanistan as it faces the ire of the Sunni world; and that the only imperative, whatever the scale of the suffering or the complete evisceration of American credibility, must be avoidance of another war in the Middle East.
Obama’s failure in Syria has also had repercussions in Europe and America. Cohen continues:
Obama’s Syrian agonizing, his constant what-ifs and recurrent “what then?” have also lead to the slaughter in Paris and San Bernardino. They have contributed to a potential unraveling of the core of the European Union as internal borders eliminated on a free continent are re-established as a response to an unrelenting refugee tide — to which the United States has responded by taking in around 2,500 Syrians since 2012, or about 0.06 percent of the total.
Obama fiddles while the Middle East and Europe burn:
“The Syrian crisis is now a European crisis,” a senior European diplomat told me. “But the president is not interested in Europe.” That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.
Syria is now the Obama administration’s shame, a debacle of such dimensions that it may overshadow the president’s domestic achievements.
So-called domestic achievements aside, the important point is that Cohen is willing to accept that Obama’s failure in Syria is of world historical importance.
He then delineates the face of that failure:
Obama’s decision in 2013, at a time when ISIS scarcely existed, not to uphold the American “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a pivotal moment in which he undermined America’s word, incurred the lasting fury of Sunni Persian Gulf allies, shored up Assad by not subjecting him to serious one-off punitive strikes and opened the way for Putin to determine Syria’s fate.
The White House is no place for charismatic amateurs.