Photos of the body of a three year old boy washed up on a beach in Turkey have drawn worldwide attention to the plight of refugees from five years of civil war in Syria. Friends from across the globe, many of whom seldom take to social media, were so shocked by the images that they commented on the tragedy and called on their governments to do more to assist those fleeing their homeland.
The pictures shocked my conscience—and I’m sure the consciences of others—because we’ve got young kids similar in age to this boy and I immediately thought of them when I saw him face down in the sand. It was even sadder to learn he was on the beach in Bodrum, which is normally a scene of family fun and relaxation for my Turkish friends during their summer vacations.
Governments should be doing more to address this refugee crisis and it’s good to see that many—from New Zealand to the UK—are already committing to do so. However, calls to take on more refugees will only address the symptom of this crisis. Those of us who were truly shocked into demanding action from our leaders need to realize that this isn’t a flood of refugees, which will recede once we relocate them. We’re dealing with a river of refugees and like all rivers this one has a source. Unless we deal with the source, people will continue to be displaced and wash up on the beaches of Europe and Asia.
The primary source is an absence of American global leadership over the past six years. In the context of Syria, this manifested itself most prominently in President Obama’s famous “red line” on using chemical weapons that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was warned to not cross. When Assad had done so on multiple occasions and it was impossible for Obama to deny that fact, our president blinked. After sending his secretary of state to congress to get approval for a military strike—approval, it should be noted the president did not need—he backed down at the last minute and withdrew the request.
Weakness emboldens despots like Assad. It’s unsurprising then that while he later agreed to give up all his chemical weapons, we’re now learning that he most likely kept some and continues to use them against his opposition.
Obama’s unwillingness to lead or follow through with his threats hasn’t been isolated to Syria and is well documented. The White House even famously called its approach to Libya “leading from behind”. And while that strategy helped toppled a dictator, it ultimately resulted in the deaths of our ambassador and other Americans, and its own refugee crisis. The Libya strategy sent signals to Assad, Putin, Khamenei and others that the US now lacks the will and resolve to project power.
Shortly after Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya, Obama ignored the advice of his defense secretary and military advisers by not negotiating for a residual force to remain in Iraq, which has led to the rise of ISIS there and in Syria. With Iran he’s negotiated a deal that two thirds of the US Senate can’t stomach and that leaders in his own party have spoken out against. And with Russia, he’s turned a blind eye as it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. Putin knows weakness when he sees it and continues to thumb his nose at Obama, most recently in delaying a probe into his friend Assad’s most recent use of chemical weapons in Syria.
Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens has spoken about how power abhors a vacuum. When America steps back, other powers step in, such as China, Russia, Iran and ISIS. This tragedy on the beach in Bodrum and the refugee crisis more generally is a direct result of the US choosing not to lead and to let others exert their will. Of course one could argue that countries like the UK and France should be stepping up. But it’s been decades since any of them were able to do so without American backing, so it’s difficult to argue that they’re the reason we see chaos breaking out around the world. The only thing that’s different is America is relinquishing its longstanding leadership role, which until now has resulted in what historians refer to as Pax Americana, or the relative peace the world has experienced since the middle of last century.
In his recent and excellent book, “America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder”, Stephens counters the argument of some conservatives and liberals that America should focus on “nation building at home”.
…whatever your view of our domestic travails, the need to fix your house does not mean you won’t also suffer if your neighborhood goes to seed. In the 1920s, Britain and France still counted as serious military powers, at least notionally interested in upholding a decent world order. Today, in the absence of Pax Americana, there is no Pax Europae or Pax UN or some other kind of benign and self-generating Pax. There is only a Pax Sinica, a Pax Rossiya, a Pax Tehranica. This is not an appealing vision for a New World Order. Nor is it one that will leave the United States alone while it repairs its roads and reduces its deficits.
To be sure, Stephens is not advocating American adventurism or nation building overseas and he repudiates many of George W Bush’s foreign policies. Rather, Stephens advocates an American “[p]ower with the reach and credibility to keep our enemies in check and far away; power that fosters global conditions of predictability, prosperity, decency and freedom.”
Secretary of State John Kerry correctly said to congress when asserting that military force was necessary because of the red line Assad crossed in using chemical weapons on his own people:
“It’s about humanity’s red line. And it’s a red line that anyone with a conscience ought to draw.”
Assad’s own citizens are now washing up on the shores of Turkey, shocking all of our consciences. The river of refugees from Syria, Libya and other countries won’t stop until this period of global turmoil comes to an end. Inevitably, America is going to be the force for good that steps in. The only question is when that will happen, who its leader will be and how many more refugees wash up on the shores of Europe and Asia before that day comes.