04.28.11

Obama's Inconsistency Doctrine on the Arab Spring

International criticism is mounting and Syrian protesters are planning another day of rage after Assad regime's brutal crackdown left hundreds dead. So why, asks former Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley, isn't the president telling Bashar al-Assad to step down, like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya?

When President Obama authorized an intervention in Libya in March, pundits rushed to declare an Obama Doctrine.

But one decision does not a doctrine make, despite the popular idea that every modern president must have one. Although Obama seemed to embrace the concept of “responsibility to protect” in intervening in Libya and calling for Muammar Gaddafi to step down from power, he has not done the same in Syria. If Gaddafi must go because he is unwilling to reform and has employed extreme state-controlled violence against a population that no longer fears him, so should President Bashar al-Assad.

The responsibility to protect, or the notion that the international community has an obligation to intervene when governments threaten their people with mass atrocities, leaves undefined a specific trigger for intervention. Obama, supported by a U.N. Security Council resolution and a clear call for action by the Arab League, pointed to Gaddafi’s threat to attack Benghazi, the center of the rebellion against the Libyan dictator. So far, so good.

But the president went beyond simply justifying military action. Because of Gaddafi’s explicit threat, Obama said, the Libyan “lost legitimacy with his people” and “needs to step down from power.” While for Egypt the president publicly encouraged only a transition, Obama called for regime change in Libya. Transformation became personal.

The White House was quick to downplay the idea of a precedent. “We don’t make decisions about questions like intervention based on consistency or precedent,” said Denis McDonough, the deputy national-security adviser.

So we have the Doctrine of Inconsistency, which is becoming ever clearer as the administration struggles to develop a coherent approach to events in Syria in light of our statements on and actions in Libya.

If Libya, then why not Syria?

Let’s stipulate that, in the face of truly transformational change, any government will be challenged. Whether televised or tweeted, history is unfolding in real time and policymakers—and spokesmen, of which I was one until mid-March—are constantly playing catchup with events the U.S. cannot control.

Throughout this Arab awakening, the administration’s words and actions have actually been pretty consistent. Starting with Secretary of State Clinton’s speech in Doha in January, the Obama team has urgently called on the region to embrace political, social, and economic reform. It laid down broad principles to guide change: no violence, respect for human rights and universal principles including freedom of speech and assembly, and real reform. The administration has made clear repeatedly that specific actions would vary country by country.

Having publicly called for Gaddafi’s departure, the administration is hesitating to do the same with Assad. It shouldn’t.

And in contrast to Libya, there is no viable military option in Syria. But what about the question of legitimacy? As the crackdown in Syria escalates, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish Gaddafi’s sins from those of Assad. Having publicly called for Gaddafi’s departure, the administration is hesitating to do the same with Assad. It shouldn’t.

No bright lines determine crimes against humanity; as Potter Stewart once said about obscenity, we know it when we see it. Gaddafi has killed thousands while Assad reportedly has killed hundreds—so far. But both are aggressively employing the full weight of their security forces to violently quell all political opposition.

While some regional leaders are still heeding calls for reform, potentially sooner in Yemen and later in Bahrain because of Saudi opposition, Gaddafi is not listening to anyone—and neither is Assad. For more than a decade, Assad has always chosen survival over reform. There is no indication he will make a different choice with his back against the wall.

The administration’s caution with Syria is certainly due in part to the uncertainty that what follows Assad would be better. But if that were the criteria guiding us, we would have stuck with Hosni Mubarak. Another factor is the absence of the strong regional support that crystallized around Libya. Again, if that is a precondition, the Arab Spring will end in Tripoli or Sana’a, depending on which leader holds out the longest.

And yet the political case for regime change in Syria is compelling, and far more fundamental to long-term regional interests. We want Gaddafi to go, a leader we took off the state sponsor of terrorism list. We appear prepared to tolerate a leader whose regime remains on the list—and for good reason.

While Assad has kept the border with Israel quiet, every other action he has taken, most particularly his alliances with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, undermine the overarching U.S. objective in the region: comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

If the United States is committed to promoting responsible, accountable, and representative government around the world, it cannot just do so where it is easy. It should do so where it matters. If Gaddafi has forfeited his legitimacy, then Assad has as well, and the world’s most powerful democracy should say so now, when it matters.

Philip J. (P.J.) Crowley is the 2011-2012 Omar Bradley Chair for Strategic Leadership at Dickinson College, Penn State University Dickinson School of Law and School of International Affairs, and the Army War College. He served as the assistant secretary of state for public affairs and spokesman for the State Department from May 2009 until March 2011.