President Barack Obama's otherwise prudent response to the Iraq crisis obscures a humanitarian horror.
On Friday, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported the forced displacement of more than 50 million people, the highest number since the end of WWII. That figure — 51.2 million at the end of 2013 — is 6 million more than the 45.2 million reported in 2012. The driver is the war in Syria. Inside the country, 6.5 million are “internally displaced” and 2.5 million people are refugees. Here the “what ifs” are pronounced. Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, crossing Obama's “red line.” The attendant bloodshed and missed deadlines to hand over its remaining cache of weapons illustrates the paradox of the administration's do-no-harm foreign policy: It telegraphs indecision, and de facto causes harm.
Last week, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announced that the Assad regime has been using chlorine gas in a “systematic manner” this year. Are chlorine barrel bombs more palatable than sarin gas? Even the president's former ambassador to Syria is wringing his hands.
“There really is nothing we can point to that's been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad's chemical materials,” Ambassador Rob Ford told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. “But now he's using chlorine gas against his opponents.”
Global political rights and civil liberties have declined for the eighth consecutive year, according to “Freedom in the World,” the annual study produced by Freedom House. Fifty-four countries exhibited declines, including major actors that ripple out beyond their borders, such as Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Indonesia and Venezuela.
What of Russia?
“A series of opportunistic maneuvers by Vladimir Putin — brokering the Syrian chemical weapons agreement, granting political asylum to former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, and approving pardons for several high-profile political prisoners — were enough to change the subject from the Russian leader's persecution of vulnerable populations at home and campaign of intimidation against neighboring countries just months before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi,” writes Arch Puddington of Freedom House.
Herein lies the puzzle: Ill-considered military action (see the 2003 invasion of Iraq) creates blowback. Inaction (see Syria) stokes chaos and butchery. Perhaps “Tikkun Olam” is an illusion.
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