The unseeing eyes of ‘the city upon a hill’
Charles Lister, from the Brookings Doha Center, expressed it best. A day after Syrian warplanes killed more than 100 people at an open market in Douma on August 16th, he tweeted: “The #DoumaMassacre goes totally unmentioned on the front pages of all 12 British daily newspapers. Unbelievable.”
Lister was right but the indifference to the suffering in Syria has been even more evident, and sustained, in the United States, which has long portrayed itself as being in the vanguard defending democratic and human rights globally. America’s fatigue with the Middle East may be reasonable after a decade of fighting wars in the region, but there is more to it than that.
There is the matter, first, of who the victims are. The reality is that, in its simplified version of events in Syria, the American public has little empathy for those paying the heaviest price in the conflict. Given the prevailing narrative being peddled in the United States, namely that the Syrian war is only important because of the Islamic State (ISIS), Americans cannot readily identify with those who oppose Bashar Assad, a stated enemy of ISIS.
There is perhaps another reason as well, which a television producer in the United States expressed quite bluntly to me: “The first question I’m asked when a tragedy occurs is whether there are any American victims. The second is whether there are any European victims. If there are none, people switch off.”
To suggest there is a racist element to the lack of American concern with the carnage in Syria is controversial. Yet it is difficult to refute when seeing one slaughter after another not provoke the slightest tremor in US public opinion. Recall that US President Bill Clinton felt a need to intervene in the Bosnian conflict after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, fearing a public backlash if he did not.
But mass murder in the Middle East is evidently not the same as in the heart of Europe. In Syria, President Barack Obama has done little to assist the victims. In 2013, the president set the tone for American detachment by describing the conflict as “somebody else’s civil war”.
Not long after he was forced to consider retaliation when Assad’s army transgressed his red lines by firing chemical weapons into Ghouta, killing more than 1,400 people, according to US estimates. At the last moment, Obama decided not to bomb regime targets when the Russians proposed an alternative plan to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile.
That was not surprising. In the days leading up to the anticipated response, Obama and officials in his administration had so played down what might occur that they neutralised the deterrence power of their potential action.
There was also the attitude of the American public — in an election year no less. A New York Times/ CBS News poll in September 2013, days after the chemical attack, highlighted stunning callousness. Although 75% of those questioned said they thought the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, 60% opposed US air strikes in Syria. A remarkable 74% opposed even sending weapons to Assad’s foes.
In other words, though a very large number of respondents said the Assad regime had committed a major war crime, in which, according to US estimates, 426 children were killed, they were unwilling to approve any action that might prevent it from happening again or to punish those responsible.
US inaction in Syria made the situation worse. Only Washington could have coordinated the discordant responses of the regional powers opposed to Assad. By refusing to do so, it created precisely the situation it most feared: chaos that allowed extremist groups to thrive in the Syrian vacuum.
Today, the United States is focused on ISIS. The Obama administration will not admit it but will accept Assad in power for now, fearing that extremists may gain if he goes. Worse, Obama has implicitly recognised Iran’s interests in Syria, writing a letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2014 to reassure him that coalition attacks against ISIS would not target Assad’s regime.
Obama’s amorality could have been justified had it enhanced American interests but the proliferation of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria, the serious migrant crisis affecting Europe, with 108,000 people, many from the broader Middle East, entering in July alone, the lost credibility of international organisations have all posed serious challenges for Washington.
Less obvious but no less important, Syria has in every way undermined Obama’s aim, stated in his 2015 national security strategy, to work towards “advancing (American) interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership”.
The Syrian fiasco must also affect America’s view of itself as a nation representing what is morally best in the world, the “city upon a hill”. While hubristic, this self-perception has often underpinned the United States’ global behaviour. But it is hard to take seriously when Americans cannot even work up attention to be revolted by the Syrian bloodbath. “City upon a hill,” indeed.