What would Romney do about Syria?

By Lee Smith
May 30, 2012

According to recent news reports, the Romney foreign policy team is trying to figure out what the presumptive Republican candidate thinks America’s role in the world should be. He’s been clear regarding the Iranian nuclear weapons program, promising that if he’s elected, Iran won’t get the bomb. But what about Afghanistan, say, or China? With less than six months left till Election Day, is he going to articulate distinctive foreign policy positions, or will he let Obama dictate the terms of the debate?

It would be understandable, given Romney’s desire to keep focused on jobs and the economy, if he were reluctant to get too far into the weeds on foreign policy. But come November, the American people will not be electing a financial adviser. They’ll be electing the leader of a world power.

Romney should not actually have much trouble outflanking Obama on foreign policy. The White House prides itself, rightly, on killing Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and other jihadists who threatened U.S. citizens, interests and allies. But the national security strategy of a superpower with interests across the world cannot be reduced to counterterrorism. Nor can our global responsibilities be fulfilled, in the immortal phrase, by “leading from behind.”

The lie was given to this bizarre conceit as early as the Libya intervention. Where Obama’s advisers boasted that leading from behind represented a new kind of leadership, scaled to the modest expectations of a post-financial-crisis world, the reality was that while France and the United Kingdom were out front, it was American firepower that brought down Qaddafi. When Obama disdains to lead elsewhere, someone else fills the vacuum – often at the expense of American interests and values.

Consider Syria, where the Obama administration has handed its policy off to the Russians, by way of former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It took Obama five months into the uprising and thousands of casualties before he called for Assad to step down. But because the administration does not believe that the Free Syrian Army is capable of toppling Assad – a prophecy that without American arms and training might be self-fulfilling – it has opted to work with the “international community” for what it calls a political solution, in the hope that Moscow will force Assad from power, leading to a democratic transition.

The White House is not able to describe the mechanism by which such an outcome might be engineered, and that is because Moscow doesn’t particularly want to topple Assad. Some of the reasons Russian diplomats have put forth for preserving Assad are nearly comical – for instance, a Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus would embolden Chechen rebels. But what matters to Russia is that it has become the de facto power on the ground because the White House has let it. Any regional actor that wants some movement on Syria, whether it’s the Saudis, Qataris or Turks, has to go to the Russians. Moscow has no intention of abandoning the role that Obama handed it. Not since the Cold War have the Russians enjoyed such diplomatic prestige – and all thanks to Obama’s foreign policy weakness.

So long as Moscow gets to play powerbroker, the Russians don’t care how many Syrians the Assad regime slaughters. The question Romney needs to be asking is: Shouldn’t this matter to the president of the United States? If Obama is moved to pity or anger by all those corpses piling up in the streets of Syrian cities, then why is the White House deferring to the Annan process – as if U.N. monitors are capable of enforcing a ceasefire? Why won’t the White House do more than promise “nonlethal” aid to a civilian population suffering the depredations of Assad loyalists?

Middle East expert Fouad Ajami calls Syria Obama’s Rwanda, referring to the (much larger) 1994 slaughter that happened on Bill Clinton’s watch. It is that, but it’s something else, too. What we’ve been witnessing for more than 15 months in Syria is a profound historical event, one finally defined not by regime violence but by the risks the opposition has taken to rid the country of a dictator. Men, women and children have been taking their lives in their hands to challenge a tyrant and his murderers, and have paid dearly – with more than 10,000 dead at this point. How, Romney should be asking, can an American president not be moved to action?

Other Republicans have challenged the White House’s stance on Syria, like Senator John McCain, who called for military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and foreign airpower. And recently the last Republican president provided a larger context for the Syrian uprising: “America does not get to choose if a freedom revolution should begin or end in the Middle East or elsewhere,” wrote George W. Bush. “It only gets to choose what side it is on.”

Romney should be making clear which side, as president, he’d be on in Syria.

This essay was originally published in The Weekly Standard, and is republished here with permission.

PHOTO: Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they hold posters of men who they say were killed by pro-government security, in Dael near Deraa, May 28, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout

8 comments

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Pretty valid points, except one.

“Not since the Cold War have the Russians enjoyed such diplomatic prestige – and all thanks to Obama’s foreign policy weakness.”

Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy is not weakness. It is strength. It is challenging those who have challenged our aggressive actions abroad to take the lead and see for themselves what it’s like to handle. Yes, America taking control instead of Russia would have probably resulted in less deaths, but realistically, that’s not our problem. The international community needs to learn that they don’t handle these things right, so that we can have you “told you so” moment.

Also, Obama is the first President to realize that American can’t just tell everyone else what to do all the time. We have to have respect for others. We have to reach across party lines in our own country and in the international community.

Posted by brooklyknight | Report as abusive

It seems the interest of European leaders is far from diplomacy, whyare NATO countries resentful of diplomatic moves? It seems strange that Syria would commit such a heinous crime in front of the U.N observers that they invited into the country. We need to investigate the agenda of the government and opposition forces and determine what objectives each side is working towards.

There are several points to consider:
1. The BBC’s fabrication of evidence.
2. According to Ban Ki Moon the massacre occurred in an area “outside of the government control”.
3. Some of the victims were beheaded; unusual method for a conventional armed force.
4. Artillery fire was also available to the opposition.
5. The Syrian government had no motive for this act which would have potentially invited military intervention, sectarian violence and destroyed any moral legitimacy for peace.

Why would the government shell an area with militia present. Do we have any militia casualties? It doesnt make any sense. The BBC seem to be having a field day with this, first it was the government, now its militia. There should be an immediate probe in to this incident. Shah Sher

Posted by ShahSher | Report as abusive

The Syrian people will work this out for their benefit. We can nudge them along, but full involvement is a folly. Our values and ideology are not theirs. They have their own perceptions and beliefs.

We would again find ourselves in another awkward and unjustified and out of control conflict.

Larry

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Does the presence of the only Russian naval base on the Med. in Tartus not have something to do with the White House stance on involvement?

Posted by notnews | Report as abusive

what should Syria do about Syria

Posted by running | Report as abusive

Nothing

Posted by JediKnight12 | Report as abusive

@ Lee Smith, if you wish to overthrow Assad, go to Syria and plan an overthrow. Otherwise, mind your own business!!!!

Thats the problem with our foreign policy. We are acting like policeman, and believe me, we cannot afford it. WE ARE BANKRUPT!!!!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Typical Weekly Standard bias. They view this through the eyes of Obama vs Romney, instead of looking at all the aspects of the question 1) what are those “interests that america has in Syria?” Weekly standard is silent on that – 2) Can they predict if a new regime will protect those interests or not? 3) what would be the total cost of US direct involvement in terms of reduction in our quality of life (since republicans want to pay for wars by reducing medicare and medicaid. Isn’t preserving medicare and medicauid an American interest?. Weekly Standard = a joke of journalism and thought leadership.

Posted by Peertoperr | Report as abusive