Clinton’s legacy: Libya or Syria?

U.S. Department of State

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton holds a press conference after the Second Conference of the Group of Friends of the Syrian People in Istanbul, Turkey, April 1, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • Elections in Libya wouldn’t have happened without NATO action which would have been impossible without U.S. support.

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  • What the Syrian opposition needs is support for training, equipping & organizing the Free Syrian Army.

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  • Secretary Clinton was able to prevent Libya from becoming a stain on the #Obama administration’s record.

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The recent elections in Libya were an emotion-filled celebration of the Libyan people’s thirst for self-government after four decades of extreme tyranny. Admittedly, those elections are only a first step on what will be a long road. And they weren't perfect, but then neither was the NATO military intervention that made those elections possible.

Nonetheless, those elections wouldn’t have happened without that NATO action, which in turn would have been impossible without U.S. support, hesitant and halfhearted though it was. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can take some quiet satisfaction in the elections, since she was a leading advocate of U.S. military action within the Obama administration, reportedly taking on her very powerful Pentagon colleague, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

This makes it all the more difficult to understand Clinton’s lack of serious action on Syria.

The Secretary of State can no longer pretend that the U.S. is hoping for the success of Kofi Annan’s “peace plan” for Syria. Annan himself, speaking to the French daily Le Monde earlier this month, said that “The evidence shows that we have not succeeded.” While the former U.N. secretary general professes to believe that his plan might be salvaged by making Iran “part of the solution” and has gone to Tehran to do so, White House spokesman Jay Carney has dismissed that approach. “I don’t think anybody with a straight face could argue that Iran has had a positive impact on developments in Syria,” he said last Tuesday.

Following the June 30 Geneva conference of the “Syria Action Group,” the Secretary of State has also had to retreat from thinking that Russia was ready to “lean” on the Syrian regime. Her claim, that the text of the agreed communiqué from that conference meant that “Assad will still have to go,” was contradicted almost immediately by Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov who complained that “some Western participants” had begun “to distort” the agreements. He firmly asserted that the final communiqué includes no demand for Assad to step down.

Lavrov even said that he thought German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s earlier suggestion that Russia should offer Assad asylum in Russia was a joke, and that he was “quite surprised” to hear some Western powers repeat the suggestion in Geneva. “This is either a dishonest attempt to deceive serious people involved in foreign policy,” he said, “or a misunderstanding of the facts.”

Did Clinton ever really believe that Annan would be able to deliver a peaceful solution in Syria, or that Russia would pressure Assad to accept one? Or was she merely seeking excuses for American inaction?

Whatever the case, Clinton has now shifted to blaming Russia and China. With tough words and a tough tone she called on countries at the so-called “Friends of Syria” meeting in Paris to “demand” that those two veto-wielding countries “get off the sidelines and begin to support the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people. . . . I don't think Russia and China believe they are paying any price at all – nothing at all – for standing up on behalf of the Assad regime. . . . That is no longer tolerable.”

Yet, all the U.S. is asking from Russia and China is support at the United Nations for “real and immediate consequences for non-compliance [with the Annan plan], including sanctions” against the Assad regime. No regime that is willing to kill thousands of its citizens will abandon power because of U.N. sanctions.

What the Syrian opposition needs most is support for training, equipping and organizing the Free Syrian Army. By providing that support, the U.S. might also be able to persuade the opposition to provide assurances about a post-Assad Syria that would encourage fence-sitters – including probably many in the Syrian Army, as well as members of the Alawite and Christian minorities – to abandon the regime. That will require working with neighboring countries like Turkey, but it doesn’t need Russian or Chinese approval. The complaints about Russia and China are a diversion from the real issue.

Last year, and at least as recently as this past February, demonstrators in Syria were burning the flags of Russia and China. In one incident last October they actually displayed American, British and French flags in apparent appreciation for words of support from the U.S. and others. But how much longer before they begin to see American weakness or hypocrisy as no different from Russian and Chinese vetoes?

Secretary Clinton was able to prevent Libya from becoming a stain on the Obama administration’s record, the way that Rwanda was for President Clinton and that Bosnia was for both him and the first President Bush. Why, then, is she repeating those earlier mistakes in Syria?


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  • Paul Wolfowitz spent more than three decades in public service and higher education. Most recently, he served as president of the World Bank and deputy secretary of defense. As ambassador to Indonesia, Mr. Wolfowitz became known for his advocacy of reform and political openness and for his interest in development issues, which dates back to his doctoral dissertation on water desalination in the Middle East. At AEI, Mr. Wolfowitz works on development issues.

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