Last week, President Obama filled two high-profile foreign policy posts with long-time advisers known for strongly advocating the use of US moral suasion, and if necessary military might, to prevent or halt humanitarian disasters like the one now unfolding in Syria.
Like it or not, Obama’s new National Security Advisor, Susan Rice, and his nominee to replace her as US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, face immediate personal and professional challenges from the Syrian conflict.
The fast-expanding refugee population of more than 1.5 million, with its destabilizing effects on neighboring countries, rumors of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ and a death toll creeping close to 100,000 all confront Rice and Power with the type of humanitarian emergency that appears to meet their threshold for US action, judging from their positions on similar situations in the past.
Power made her name with a study of 20th century genocides that formed the basis for her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
Rice, who previously worked in the Clinton Administration, has expressed remorse for not urging US intervention to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide, vowing that if ever presented with another similar situation, “I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.”
Neither woman is new to the Obama administration. (Power was adviser for multilateral affairs and human rights at the National Security Council until last February.) So both have played substantial roles in crafting Obama’s foreign policy architecture, which has been infused with an awareness of the growing limits on US influence abroad and the drawing down of US military presence in foreign lands, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.
An exception to this was Washington’s active involvement in NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya to protect the civilian population of Benghazi from what could have been a massacre by the forces of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. Not surprisingly, Power and Rice both argued strongly in favor of US intervention in Libya.
Neither woman has publicly dissented from Obama’s response to the Syrian conflict so far, which has been limited to mostly rhetorical support and the provisioning of non-lethal combat equipment for the rebel opposition. Washington also has given modest funding for humanitarian relief of displaced Syrians. This approach underscores Obama’s reticence to get involved in another foreign military conflict—a reticence overwhelmingly shared by the American public. A June poll by the New York Times and CBS News found that nearly six in ten people said the US should not get involved in overseas conflicts.
From the vantage point of the White House, there is no way for the United States to intervene militarily on the side of the rebel opposition without risking the strong likelihood of being sucked into a sectarian quagmire.
But Obama faces pressure from some quarters to provide arms to the rebels or to use military force to create and maintain a no-fly zone to protect Syrian civilians. Republican Senator John McCain, who recently made a clandestine trip into rebel-held Syrian territory, is among the most prominent critics of Obama’s Syrian policy.
The conflict’s rising human costs and its deepening destabilization of the entire Levant can only add more pressures on the administration’s stance. Augustus R. Norton, a professor of international relations and director of Boston University’s Institute for Iraqi Studies (which just published a new study of Syrian refugees), noted in an email that “at the height of the civil war in Iraq, one in seven Iraqis was displaced by the violence and disorder, but the still cascading humanitarian tragedy in Syria now exceeds that horrid metric [with a] fifth of the Syrian population … uprooted by violence. Unless the needs of the multitudes of victims are addressed more adequately, flood currents from the chaos in Syria will cause great political problems in neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.”
So, will Rice and Power shift the administration to greater intervention in the conflict? Joshua Landis, for one, believes not. “Everyone is speculating about whether or not Obama’s new appointments will reverse his policy in Syria and push him to arm the rebels directly…. I don’t believe they will,” the Director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies wrote in an email. “From everything I have heard, President Obama is fully in charge of his Syria policy. He doesn’t want to be pushed into a war that seems to have mission creep written all over it. I don’t thing they could pressure him into it even if they wanted to.”
Norton concurs when it comes to arming the rebels. But he sees a possibility that Rice and Power could push the administration to do more to ease the humanitarian disaster of the refugees. “There is little appetite for military engagement—boots on the ground in Syria or the establishment of an effectively controlled no-fly zone. I don’t see Power or Rice changing that assessment,” Norton wrote. “However, we may envisage both women making a strong argument based on a cold calculation of interests, as well as fundamental human rights, that the US must be seen to play a much more active leadership role in addressing the immense refugee crisis.”
If so, they would be echoing their past.