Christmas reflections: What Obama has taught the American people about Syria

We owe it to the people of Syria to pause for a moment, on this Christmas Day, and bow our heads in shame for what we, the nations of the civilized world, have not done to protect them.

In this regard, the burden Barack Obama will bear in history not only for his inaction, but also for blocking the actions of others, is enormous.

Since 2011, he has taught the American people that the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity is no longer a matter of grave concern.

He has taught the American people not to act to stop the horrors of Syria, but instead to look the other way.

He has eased any discomfort they might have felt by using the military to make the political argument that using force to halt the atrocities in Syria would be hard.

He has spoken many words about Syria, and offered many explanations of this or that turn in U.S. policy.

In thinking about Obama and what historians will have to say about his policy of inaction toard Syria, however, readers might usefully bear in mind what Theodore Roosevelt had to say when he accepted the 1907 Nobel Peace Prize, about words and deeds:

“International Peace”

We must ever bear in mind that the great end in view is righteousness, justice as between man and man, nation and nation, the chance to lead our lives on a somewhat higher level, with a broader spirit of brotherly goodwill one for another. Peace is generally good in itself, but it is never the highest good unless it comes as the handmaid of righteousness; and it becomes a very evil thing if it serves merely as a mask for cowardice and sloth, or as an instrument to further the ends of despotism or anarchy. We despise and abhor the bully, the brawler, the oppressor, whether in private or public life, but we despise no less the coward and the voluptuary. No man is worth calling a man who will not fight rather than submit to infamy or see those that are dear to him suffer wrong. No nation deserves to exist if it permits itself to lose the stern and virile virtues; and this without regard to whether the loss is due to the growth of a heartless and all-absorbing commercialism, to prolonged indulgence in luxury and soft, effortless ease, or to the deification of a warped and twisted sentimentality.

Moreover, and above all, let us remember that words count only when they give expression to deeds, or are to be translated into them (emphasis added). The leaders of the Red Terror2 prattled of peace while they steeped their hands in the blood of the innocent; and many a tyrant has called it peace when he has scourged honest protest into silence. Our words must be judged by our deeds; and in striving for a lofty ideal we must use practical methods; and if we cannot attain all at one leap, we must advance towards it step by step, reasonably content so long as we do actually make some progress in the right direction.

[Footnote] 2. The “Terror” is a term characterizing the conduct of power in revolutionary France by the second committee of Public Safety (September, 1793-July, 1794), sometimes identified as the “Red Terror” to distinguish it from the short-lived “White Terror”, which was an effort by the Royalists in 1795 to destroy the Revolution.

–Theodore Roosevelt, 1907 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, delivered May 5, 1910.

Whenever President Obama speaks of Syria, let us remember these words from Teddy Roosevelt.

Let us also, on this Christmas Day, at least not forget to think of the people of Syria, and to say a prayer that some leader or leaders in the world will find the courage not to talk of peace, but to act with force to halt the Syrian government’s ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale.

See also the following articles by The Trenchant Observer:

“Syria: As Christmas approaches, the assault on civilization continues,” December 22, 2013.

“60,000 killed in Syria—REPRISE II: The Olympic Games, and the Battle for Aleppo, Begin—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #91 (January 2, 2013),” January 2, 2013.

“The Leopard and the Impala: Putin astutely plays Obama for a chump,” September 12, 2013.

“Moral cowardice in Europe and elsewhere: Bad-faith arguments on Syria by Germany and other countries lacking the courage to act,” September 6, 2013.

“Hommage à Homs: Jacques Prévert, “Barbara” (with English translation); Paul Verlaine, “Ariette III”,” February 25, 2012.

“REPRISE: A prayer for the children of Syria,” December 25, 2013.

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.