The U.N. Commission’s Report on Syria, Obama, and the path ahead with Susan Rice and Samantha Power

The release of the Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria is discussed in a previous post. The report details the horrors of the war in Syria, which continue every day.

Anyone interested in what is happening in Syria, and the reponses of the West and the civilized nations of the world, should read this report. The full text of the report is found here.

How should we react to the horrors detailed in it pages?

It would be nice if we could say only, “Meanwhile, America sleeps.”

But we can’t, because the truth is much harsher than that. Barack Obama has in fact looked evil in the eye, and decided to simply look away. To justify this moral fecklessness, the Obama administration says they are “going to work through the Russians”, and work toward a negotiated settlement at a Geneva conference to be held with the Russians–whenever that might be, and as if even getting the opposing sides to the conference table would simply resolve the conflict. One cannot have followed developments in Syria for the last two years and give any credence to the utility of this approach.

The American policy of inaction toward Syria has been one of utter cynicism, resulting from Obama’s incompetence in foreign policy. It reflects a mistaken belief that nothing in Syria is going to affect Obama or America.

Incompetence, moral cowardice, steadfast determination to follow a course that could lead to a mortal threat not only to Jordan and to Lebanon, but also to Israel itself, as Iran acquires nuclear weapons and Egypt becomes an authoritarian Islamic state—this is the current American policy.

It is painful to see the arguments of the last two years repeated with renewed earnestness, as if they were newfound truths, yet spoken with conviction that can only be half-feigned.

One is reminded again of the first stanza of “The Second Coming”, William Butler Yeats’ famous poem published in 1921 following World War I, which reads as follows:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

What can be said, at the end of the day, in defense of Obama’s policy toward Syria, other than to point out the risks of greater involvement, while downplaying the risks and costs of inaction–which to date include the moral currency of the United States and over 80,000 Syrian lives?

One glimmer of hope has appeared: Obama just appointed Susan Rice to be National Security Advisor, and Samantha Powell to be Ambassador to the United Nations.

Susan Rice has Russia’s number, and has first-hand familiarity with the Russians’ perfidy on Syria over the last two years.  She also has real diplomatic experience, unlike many of “the Obamians” who have had great influence in the White House on foreign policy up until now. A second positive aspect is that Samantha Power has written about the crimes in Bosnia and Rwanda, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her book on genocide, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. She is also the author of Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World (2008).

The appointment of Susan Rice to be National Security Advisor strongly suggests that Obama will continue to run foreign policy under tight White House control, both generally and with respect to Syria. One can hope that Susan Rice might bring her intelligence and influence to bear on Obama in ways that could actually move him toward changing positions. She is one of a very small group of people he seems to really listen to. Samantha Power has a compelling background, but it must be remembered that she has been in the White House while Obama pursued the policies of the past four years. Moreover, with Secretary of State John Kerry traveling the globe and pursuing a Geneva II peace conference, it is far too early to shift from the pessimism expressed above to a new optimism about future U.S. policy toward Syria.

These appointments will please the liberal foreign policy wing of the Democratic Party. Whether they will make any difference to the human beings suffering the horrors of war in places like al-Qusair and throughout Syria remains to be seen.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.