When examining US foreign policy, or almost any other country’s foreign policy for that matter, it quickly becomes clear that most of it is not guided by morals but by interests covered by a moral rhetoric. Following are a few examples: threatening to strike Syria allegedly because of the use of chemical weapons, while ‘living’ with other severe war crimes and gross human rights violations across the world, including the slave trade in Saudi Arabia, concentration camps in China, genocide in Darfur and child slavery in Africa; denouncing terrorism, while sending financial aid to the Palestinian Authority that is then used to pay grants and salaries to convicted terrorist who murdered Israeli civilians, arming Taliban and Al-Qaeda during the 80s and the Syrian rebels today (many of which are affiliated with Global Jihad).
Morals can be easily applied to provide an answer to simple questions, for example: War, yes or no? democratic elections or martial law? chemical weapons, yes or no? most people would answer these three questions without a second thought saying: no, democracy, no. But what if the choice is between war and gross human rights violations? democratic elections that are expected to result with a violent, oppressive, racist and abusive regime or a military dictatorship that will protect minorities, women’s rights and freedom of religion? chemical weapons or support Al-Qaeda? then it gets tricky.
On the short term morals are very difficult to be translated into actions, not to say a coherent policy, and given that we live in an imperfect world where some times the best you can do is try to avoid the worst of two bad situations (see the examples above), people who are idealists may find it very hard to make any decisions that in the long term will be consistent with the morals with which they would like to be associated. It seems as if lately the Obama administration was forced to make several decisions of that kind.
You would expect educated intelligent decision makers to learn from past mistakes and especially from the mistakes of those who served in similar positions and in the same office. For those of you who watched Rambo III, you probably remember the following sentence from the end credits: “Dedicated to the brave Mujaheddin fighters“. When the US decided to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan during the against the soviets it made a short term moral decision that in the long term has proven to be a disaster. The Obama administration is currently facing a very similar dilemma with Syria, but it seems as if no one has learned its lessons but the Russians.
In order to put the recent Syria crisis in the right perspective, it is important first to analyze how the Obama administration dealt with other incidents of what many call “the Arab Spring”. Egypt could serve as a fair example.
Mubarak’s regime in Egypt was a US ally that managed to promote US interests in the region and preserve the peace treaty with Israel, even though anti-west sentiment is strong in the Egyptian street and anti-Israeli sentiment is even worse (according to a poll conducted in 2011 by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project “Nearly eight-in-ten Egyptians have an unfavorable opinion of the U.S. – virtually unchanged from last year“; By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians say their country should annul the treaty with Israel). Mubarak also managed, to a certain extent, to restrain his people and protect women’s rights and the Christian Coptic minority (from the poll: (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men; just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions). But when Mubarak was in crisis the US neglected him in favor of “democratic” elections, ignoring his sham trial, the possible consequences of the aforementioned statistics and the fact that other than the Egyptian military the only established and well organized group of power that was present in Egypt at that time was the Muslim Brotherhood. Later on, even with all of its downsides, it was easy to understand the purpose of continuous US support to Egypt under Muhammad Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood’s regime. If we can learn any thing from the situation in Egypt is that an anarchy of an uneducated, racist and violent mob is worse than almost any ruler, even if such ruler supports Hamas, strengthens ties with Iran and oppress the rights of secular citizens, women and minorities. Maintaining said support by US could have allowed it to have some leverage on Mursi’s Egypt, but unfortunately the Obama administration forgot the “stick” in the “carrot and stick” approach and was willing to send Cairo $1.3 billion in annual U.S. military aid and 20 F-16 Block 52 multi-role fighters although its regime gave the US a cold shoulder. However, after the army returned to power headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Obama administration refused to embraced el-Sisi, stating that it considers delaying the aid to Egypt, it also cancelled the shipment of the F-16 fighters that it intended to provide to the Muslim Brotherhood. The administration also showed great concern to Mursi’s condition by demanding his release, a courtesy that was never offered to US former ally Mubarak. Obama did all this while disregarding the yearning of al-Sisi’s Egypt to cooperation with the west and its determination to clean Sinai from Salafi terrorists and prevent traffic of contraband to Gaza. By taking a short term moral stand (supporting elections), Obama actually made a long term immoral decision (e. g. increasing regional unrest by strengthening terror organizations; degradation in the human rights of women and minorities; limitation of individual freedoms and freedom of the press).
Egypt was a trial and it seems as if Obama failed. While the US neglected Mubarak, and showed that it is willing to do the same to Turkey’s Erdogan, and after reopening the embassy in Damascus Obama showed he is willing to support Al-Qaeda against Syria instead of trying to understand the complexity of the conflict, Russia consistently and persistently supported the Iranian and Syrian regimes, notwithstanding very heavy international pressure and isolation. When it served its interests, Russia also invaded Ossethia despite NATO and the US. Any rational leader or government in the Middle East can learn from these events that the US will support you as long as you are popular and continue to feed their administration’s self-righteousness, but will neglect you in the ‘money time’, while Russia will support you when most needed.
Now to go back to a few words about Syria. While Assad is clearly a mass murderer, those who know something about Syria understand that he is playing a zero-sum game. There are several different ethnic groups in Syria, with about 74% Sunnis and 11% Alawites (Assad regime’s community). Assad and the Alawites are stuck with their backs to the wall, it is kill or be killed. If they surrender there will be no peace but genocide. While this does not justify indiscriminate military strikes on Sunni civilian population and certainly not use of chemical weapons, it goes to show that the Syria conflict is not a black and white story, especially not since Al-Qaeda joined the fray to fight against Assad. After the chemical attack Obama declared decisively that the US will intervene in Syria, that was his first mistake, which he could have easily avoided by learning the lessons of the Afghanistan-Soviet war mentioned above. His second mistake was to make his threats hollow by delaying the attack and later looking for excuses to climb down the tree by bringing the question to congress. This was not a matter of War Powers, otherwise the issue would have been brought to congress before Obama made a public decisive threat and mobilized US forces to combat positions. By doing this he offered Putin an opportunity to materially upgrade Russia’s international position and take a huge step forward to the top of the international community’s pyramid, the pyramid that Obama started building for Putin already at the beginning of the Egyptian crisis.