Barack Obama sought and succeeded last week to block a vote in the House of Representatives addressing the issue of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.
See Josh Rogin, “White House worked secretly to delay Syria sanctions bill,” Wasington Post, September 20, 2016 (12:03 PM).
“The bill would impose new sanctions on the Assad regime and its supporters, spur investigations meant to fuel the prosecution of war crimes in Syria, and encourage a process to find a negotiated solution to the crisis. Specifically, it would require the president to impose new sanctions on any entity that does business with or finances the Syrian government or its military or intelligence services, which includes Russia and Iran. It would also require sanctions on any entity that does business with several Syrian government-controlled industries, including the airline, telecommunications and energy sectors.”
The bill, entitled the “Ceasar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” points toward an alternative approach to Syria, one not based on “working through the Russians”. But even if approved it could not become law without the approval of the Senate and President Obama’s signature.
One might imagine that the long-term foreign policy interests of the United States would be served by respecting the Separation of Powers both in spirit and letter.
Recently, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to smooth over a rift with Turkey following the Bundestag’s adoption of a resolution condemning the Turkish “genocide” of Armenians in 1915, by insisting that the parliament was a separate branch of government over which she had no control. Now, President Obama would be hard pressed to make a similar argument.
Blocking the vote, in the long view, was one more craven act of appeasement with Vladimir Putin and the Russians, who have been committing war crimes and incurring complicity for Bashar Al-Assad’s war crimes for some years.
The thinking was apparently that the resolution could upset Putin and Al-Assad at a delicate moment when the U.S.-Russian ceasefire was tenuous, and its success was necessary for the U.S. and Russia to move to the next stage, in which close military cooperation between the two countries would begin.
This is always the flaw in appeasement: fear of upsetting the aggressor.
U.S. defense and military officials are reportedly reluctant to enter into such cooperation, fearing both that it would tell the Russians (and Syrians) where their people are on the ground, and that the Russians would gain valuable intelligence about the methods and sources used to target enemy positions and individuals.
The agreement required a long telephone call on which Obama came down on the side of Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the deal with the Russians, and against Defense Department officials including Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter who opposed it.
Barack Obama’s legacy, in part, will be that you should work together with war criminals if you think that will help you achieve another objective, and you shouldn’t push these criminals on the war crimes and crimes against humanity they have committed, and are still committing–e.g., in the bombing of the UN Red Crescent humanitarian aid convoy in Syria on Monday.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, human rights, international humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict), and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity have not only taken a back-seat role, but also seem at times not even to have a representative at the decision making table.
One can perhaps understand why Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., has let her hair grow long, to the point of looking like an old woman who can hardly bare the emotional and psychological stress which she must endure each day.
President Tayyib Erdogan has been tearing down democratic institutions and the rule of law in Turkey. No problem. Now Turkish forces are working with U.S. forces within Syria.
Russia has invaded the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, where its forces remain. Obama wants to engage military cooperation with them in attacking ISIS in Syria, and doesn’t want Congress to call for accountability for the war crimes and crimes against humanity they have committed. No problem.
President Rodrigo Duterte threatens the U.S. president by calling hiim a “son of a whore” to keep Obama from loudly insisting that he stop his campaign of extrajudicial executions, vigilante justice and impunity in his battle against drug dealers. After canceling a meeting at the regional meeting of ASEAN in Vientiane, Obama meets with him anyway, and does not loudly denounce the assassinations underway. No problem. The U.S. has important strategy interests in the Philippines, and Obama doesn’t want to upset the President Duterte, no matter what he is doing.
So, that’s Obama’s legacy.
Human rights, and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity are not important. It is better to work with war criminals when that suits your immediate purpose.
Obama’s mind seems to have been completely captured by the imperatives of the war against the jihadists. To this day, he personally approves (and probably directs) all drone strikes against those on the kill list. That means he is personally involved in killing people every day or every few days. This he learned when John Brennan was in the White House, and used to call him out of meetings to go to the basement.
Obama has been too close to and too personally involved in this killing.
In the broader context of international politics, Obama will stand in the history books as an American president who moved the United States away from its 75 years of support for a “principled international order”–which Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter defended only weeks ago in a major foreign policy speech in England–to the paradigm of “power politics” or “Machtpolitik” which ruled the day in the first half of the 20th century.
The great challenge of our generation, and every generation, is whether the world will operate under a state system based on international law and institutions, or one based on power politics, including military power and its use.
Historians will judge Obama on his record of actions, not his words. Blocking the House vote on war crimes and crimes against humanity last week is only a small piece of the story, but a revealing one.
The Trenchant Observer