EDITORIAL: Obama’s Mideast indignity

Syrian brutality calls attention to White House weakness

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President Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy for dealing with the rolling crisis in the Middle East has claimed more victims. On Saturday, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces shelled Jisr al-Shughour, burned its fields and rolled into the city center on tanks. The White House responded with a statement that the Syrian government had created a “humanitarian crisis” and that unless it gave “immediate and unfettered access” to the Red Cross, it would “once again be showing contempt for the dignity of the Syrian people.” The Damascus regime was unmoved.

Mr. Obama uses the word “dignity” in almost every speech he gives, but it has no persuasive power when it comes to dictators whose existence is an affront to the concept. Mr. Assad’s approach to the leader of the most powerful country in the world has been to ignore him. In his May 19 Middle East policy speech, Mr. Obama delivered what was widely described as a “stern warning” to Mr. Assad: “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: He can lead that transition or get out of the way.” Mr. Assad rejected Mr. Obama’s proposed dichotomy and chose a third path, ramping up the violence and daring America to do anything about it.

Mr. Assad’s thugs have killed more civilians than Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi did before the United States began its bombing campaign against him, and comparisons to Libya are hard to avoid. Back on March 3, Mr. Obama said, “The violence must stop; Moammar Gadhafi has lost the legitimacy to lead, and he must leave; those who perpetrate violence against the Libyan people will be held accountable; and the aspirations of the Libyan people for freedom, democracy and dignity must be met.” The same could be said about Syria. On March 19, as U.S. forces intervened, Mr. Obama couched the action as “part of a coalition that includes close allies and partners who are prepared to meet their responsibility to protect the people of Libya and uphold the mandate of the international community.” This was the first and probably last invocation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine.

When asked on Monday about the difference between Mr. Assad’s murderous rampage and Col. Gadhafi’s, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the circumstances were different. “There was a united call for action in Libya,” he explained. “As you know, we had a United Nations mandate.” There is no such mandate in Syria, which puts the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of defending the implicit veto power he has given this group over the United States acting in its national interest, or defending the helpless people Mr. Obama has encouraged to rise up against brutal regimes.

The crisis in Syria reveals a White House strategy that is conceptually disconnected and ineffective. The lesson of the “Arab Spring” to Middle Eastern autocrats is to send in the tanks and let Mr. Obama worry about dignity.

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