Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Syria, Israel, and “World Opinion”

by Elliott Abrams
February 24, 2012


The complaint that the Obama administration believes in “leading from behind” received new strength yesterday, when Secretary Clinton made an astonishing comment about the Syrian opposition. It came in the context of the Assad regime’s continuing massacres, an accusation from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that crimes against humanity are being committed, and the gathering today of 70 nations in Tunis to discuss the Syrian situation.

The Secretary of State said of the Syrian opposition that “they will, from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves….” And that was viewed as a toughening of the American position! The Secretary added that “world opinion is not going to stand idly by.”

“World opinion” has a long history of standing idly by, actually, as the Syrians being attacked by tanks now understand–and as everyone from Kosovars to Darfurians to Iraqi Shia who rose up against Saddam know well. In fact the Secretary’s malapropism is telling: of course “opinion” does not “stand idly” or end its passivity, for in the world it is nations that act. Or, like ours now, fail to act to help Syrians defend themselves from a murderous assault. They do not need more meetings such as the one in Tunis, nor more words, nor UN votes. With perhaps 7,500 dead and the number climbing each day, they need concrete help.

Among the many lessons here, one is about power and powerlessness. Syrians are being slaughtered because they do not yet have the power to defend themselves, just like people in Kosovo before them (where we heard the same nonsense about not militarizing the struggle or how we must avoid “just increasing the level of violence” as arguments against helping them).

And just like the Jews of Europe in the 1930s. Israelis are familiar with that story, and have noted well the willingness of “world opinion” not only to “stand idly by” when they are being attacked but attack them for their self-defense and even try to prevent it. Israelis remember that when the United States sought to resupply them when they stood at the precipice of disaster in the 1973 War, European nations refused us the right to land our Air Force planes for refueling. They remember the vicious comments their defense in the 2008 “Cast Lead” operation in Gaza elicited, after 12,000 rockets had been launched from Gaza into Israel. To this day, Israel is the only country on earth expected to “stand idly by” while rockets land on its territory. In fact two landed today–shot from Gaza.

I mention all of this because of another debate about self defense and self help, that surrounding Israel and the Iranian nuclear weapons program. As Israelis consider their options and face a future in which Iran  builds a nuclear weapon, threatens them, or attacks them, they cannot be much reassured by the Tunis conference and the refusal to help Syrians defend themselves. They must wonder if some day they will hear an American secretary of state saying of them that “they will, from somewhere, somehow, find the means to defend themselves….” and “world opinion is not going to stand idly by” while they are under attack.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    Strange isn’t it? Obama is staying away from the one Arab uprising that could benefit Israel and hurt Iran.

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Obama has to be our most decisive president since James Buchanan . It would appear that Syria’s “somewhere” is “over the rainbow” .

  • Posted by unclesam

    the issue is Islam – for a leaving assad there will be another coming for a leaving khameini there will be another coming hating western eastern own people for a sake of a brutal unevolved tribal god called allah

  • Posted by Tertius Wehmeyer

    The problem in the Middle East, essentially for most of our divided world comes from a lack of self-esteem and self-love which has it’s roots in the way children are raised, or sometimes not raised, by their parents. This leads to fear based strategies of survival. This is true for all countries and most groups in the world, not only Iran or Syria or only Israel or Palestine.

    Why should Iran, Syria or even the future state of Palestine not have nuclear weapons if the United States, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, France etc have nuclear weapons. Why should some countries have more rights than others. Is this just?

    Maybe the answer to threat of nuclear weapons, the capacity of the weapons for regional or global environmental destruction, is that all countries should work out a win-win strategy in which there is no need for nuclear weapons or even wars.

    I don’t have the answers how global peace can be achieved, but maybe that is a task that can be given to all the living and able winners of the Nobel Peace Prize augmented by a group of trusted people representing each country on our precious Mother Earth? To create a global environment where no person is threatened by any other, no country or group is threatened by the other. Or shall we wait for an attack from outer space by aliens who want to destroy our only planet or enslave humanity before we all start living in harmony with all fellow human beings and creatures on this planet and the planet itself that give life to us all?

    The mere fact that nuclear weapons have been developed and used, clearly shows that something drastic is wrong with humanity and the way we conduct ourselves on this planet that is a gift of love to us all, irrespective of what our religions or ideologies tell us of how this planet was created.

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