By Editorial Board April 18
TWICE SINCE 2011, President Obama has delivered major speeches citing the free flow of oil as a U.S. “core interest” in the Middle East. The prevention of mass atrocities has been a lower priority; in a 2013 address Mr. Obama said that it should be pursued only in conjunction with allies and without the use of U.S. military force.
It was therefore surprising to hear an apparent reversal by the president in an interview this month. “At this point, the U.S.’s core interests in the region are not oil,” he told the New York Times. “Our core interests are that everybody is living in peace . . . that children are not having barrel bombs dropped on them, that massive displacements aren’t taking place.”
In making this rare reference to the ongoing crimes against humanity in Syria, Mr. Obama could have been referring to something very specific. On March 16, according to the State Department, the regime of Bashar al-Assad dropped barrel bombs on the town of Sarmin that reportedly contained chlorine. Six people, including three children, were killed. According to a report released Monday by Human Rights Watch, this was one of six barrel bomb attacks involving the suspected use of chlorine or other chemicals around the northern city of Idlib between March 16 and March 31.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry reacted strongly to the first strike, issuing a statement saying that the regime’s use of chlorine would violate the Chemical Weapons Convention. “The international community cannot turn a blind eye to such barbarism,” Mr. Kerry said. “We are looking very closely into this matter and considering next steps.”
We’d like to hope that the words of the president and secretary of state suggest that the administration is reconsidering its refusal to take consequential action against the Assad regime, which continues to cross the red line once established by Mr. Obama by using chemical agents against civilians — and is the root source of the turmoil destroying both Syria and Iraq.
So far, unfortunately, turning “a blind eye” remains the best description of U.S. behavior. The administration is nominally pursuing a weak initiative to train 15,000 Syrian fighters over three years, with the help of regional allies. But the effort has been excruciatingly slow to get off the ground, in part because of the administration’s insistence that the sole mission of the force must to fight the Islamic State.
A report issued last week by the Atlantic Council offered one way forward: converting the underpowered training mission into a project to build a 50,000-member “Syrian national stabilization force” capable of imposing order across the country. As Frederic Hof, a former State Department adviser on Syria, noted in presenting the study, just the announcement that the United States intended to build such a force could soften the diplomatic impasse that now makes a negotiated end to the Syrian war impossible.
Without question this would be a major undertaking: As a starting point it would require the creation of the northern Syrian safe zone that Mr. Obama has resisted for years. But it would offer a path to ending the Assad regime and its crimes. That makes it a more realistic course than the president’s refusal to act — which won’t protect core U.S. interests, or save a single child from a barrel bombing.
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Posted: 18 Apr 2015 01:48 PM PDT
Welcome to the Middle East, where the only monsters are the ones you bring with you. In the primordial past, in a time before writing became prevalent, maybe our ancestors were trying to make sense of the world and so they created stories that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. They told their children that existence was a phenomenal struggle between good and evil, and ever since then we have been cursed to live that same story over and over. It’s like we have something ingrained within us, and we want to believe. The dictators know that we want to believe, and they feed that story continuously. They give us stories about foreigners coming to kill us, stories about Jews dominating the world, stories about other tribes that can never be trusted no matter how long you have dealt with them. But the dictators are above these stories of good and evil. They stoke the fires, and the region burns long after they are gone.
When I talk to a liar – a person who supports the dictators – they tell me that we should stop looking at the dictator’s actions as good and evil. They tell me that this is not a useful way of understanding things and that we should try to see things from their perspective. The question that begs itself, today as well as four years ago, is why? Why do we need to see things from the perspective of an Assad or a Mubarak or a Saddam or a Gaddafi? Is it so that we can understand that they are just acting out of fear? That they are forced to behave this way? Or maybe it is that they believe they are locked in a never ending struggle with the great enemy abroad? With imperialism or the Great Satan? If so, how is that different to just explaining things as a battle of good versus evil?
When I read through my list of news articles each day (reading is a strong word, I mostly skim through them nowadays), I group the stories into positive and negative: ISIS lose – good; regime loses – good; civilian casualties – bad. It’s unconscious, because there are things that I care for more than others. I feel, internally, a great anger at the site of barrel bombs being dropped on Syrian towns and cities, as is the case when I watch the victims of the regime’s chemical attacks. I want it to stop, I hope it’ll stop. A part of me can’t accept that something like this can go on without a judgment being called, without a punishment being meted out to the responsible party. I want there to be a hell for the dictators and their followers. I hope that a “good” side will win. I want the side that waves the green, white and black flag to win. I still believe they represent the best – albeit imperfect- hope for this wretched country and whatever is left of it. Does that mean I am locked into a narrative of good versus evil?
Fine, maybe I am. The dictator’s apologist tells me, “Look, there you go again! You’re talking in terms of good versus evil! We’ll never get anywhere that way”. And again I’m puzzled. What on earth does he want? What is it that the dictator’s apologist is really asking of me? Does he want me to stop using the words, “Good” and “Evil”? Or does he want me to stop labelling the actions as good and evil? That’s it, the latter. I think he wants me to stop judging the actions. Perhaps, and here I am thinking for them, they would like me to label these events that we hear trickling out of Syria as “unfortunate”. The word unfortunate takes the sting out of describing the action. They want me to say unfortunate because fortune is a concept that is beholden to no man. That popular saying, “Fortune is a fickle mistress” and all that. It’s basically that there are these winds of fortune that blow in the world, and sometimes they are what we desire, and other times they are not. And when they are not, the dictator’s apologist reasons, then we should label them as unfortunate.
Therefore, it is “unfortunate’ that the dictator had to listen to the advisors who told him that a firm hand was needed, and unfortunate that the dictator’s men were told to fire at unarmed civilians or else they themselves would be shot. It is “unfortunate” that when shooting and tanks and artillery and aerial bombardment didn’t work as effectively as they liked that somebody decided to load chemicals into a bomb and to fire these at civilian areas that had “unfortunately” decided they didn’t want a dictator to rule them anymore. This is the neutral ground that the dictator’s apologist wants us to meet on. The sting has to go, the victim’s condition is “unfortunate” and perhaps something can be done about that later, much later. But for now, we don’t need to point fingers. After all, one series of unfortunate events let to another series of unfortunate events, and since everybody has blood on their hands, then nobody must pass judgment.
This is the same logic a ten year old uses when they’ve been told off about something. The child will try to remove the blame by pointing the finger elsewhere, “Everybody else is doing it”, or “he told me to do it”. And that kind of argument has been used over and over, but not by children, but by dictators and by the people who follow them. These were grown men and women who did, what did you like to call it Mr Dictator apologist? “Unfortunate” things. They did unfortunate things over and over until somebody stopped them and put them in front of everybody and asked them why they did what they did. And over and over, they used the same arguments as guilty children. Isn’t that curious? That dictators and the people who follow them cannot give a grown up, reasonable and rational answer to why they caused these “unfortunate” incidents to occur?
They could argue that if they did not do what they did, that others would have, that this is the way of the world. And I would say you are right, it is the way of the world. We cannot hope to change and eliminate all war, all greed, and all murder from our world. You could say that there is something in the human being, innate, that calls for this. That it has been this way since the time that Cain killed Abel. But then, I would ask of you, aren’t you taking us back to the stories of good and evil? You have told me not to use the words good and evil, and yet you come back and tell me that all these bad things I spoke of are in our nature as humans. And would that not mean that all the good things in the world, like honesty, charity, and love, are also parts of human nature, and that the mixtures of these things are such that some people have more of one part and less of the other, and others the opposite? And if so, I ask of you, apologist to dictators, what do you think you are doing when you support a man who does the things that he does to stay in power? You’ve taken us around in a big circle and we are back to where we began, although we do have a clearer understanding of good and evil.
Evil is not something that exists abstract from human actions, it is our judgment on the actions of other human beings. We call earthquakes, diseases, and floods “unfortunate”, we call the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the Cambodian Genocide, “evil”. They are evil because these things were thought up and acted upon by men and women – normal, average, even likeable, but they were men and women nonetheless, not monsters. Other people, not saints, not angels, pronounced judgment on the actions of these men and women to hold them accountable. The battle of good versus evil is not something metaphysical, it is not some abstract superstition that is being battled out in the heavens, but of this earth – of our flesh and blood. The “battle” of good versus evil is our struggle with what it means to be human, and the harder you try to escape it, the more embroiled in it you become.
You don’t want me to use the word “evil” for certain actions because you won’t be able to face yourself in the mirror. If you’re going to be ugly you want the whole world to be ugly. If you can’t have something you’ll burn it before anybody else does. That is what it all boils down to, and that is why you’re not a man, but a spoilt child that needs a good smacking. You and your dictator.
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