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.