By Paul Wolfowitz - 04/26/12 11:48 PM EDT
Speaking at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel turned to the president and said, “I cannot sleep at night after what I have seen. We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country.”
The occasion was the opening of the Holocaust Memorial, the president was Bill Clinton and the country was Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia. Nineteen years later, at the same location and to a different president, Wiesel said about Syria, “How is it that Assad is still in power? Have we not learned?”
On its present course, the United States is in danger of repeating a different bad experience — that of Bosnia, where three years of refusal to allow the Bosnian Muslims to have weapons to defend themselves resulted in the death of an estimated 200,000 people — mostly civilians — including 8,000 in the single terrible massacre at Srebrenica.
Finally, the United States was forced to intervene, first with a bombing campaign and then with the deployment of some 28,000 troops as part of a NATO peace-keeping force roughly twice that size. That mission was supposed to last only one year but was only finally handed over to a European Union force more than nine years later. The small country of Bosnia never really recovered, and extremist elements from the Middle East gained a foothold that they never had before.
We are also in danger of repeating the experience of 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s tanks and helicopter gunships slaughtered thousands of Shia and Kurds who had risen up against Hussein at the end of the first Gulf War. Although then-President George H. W. Bush had previously encouraged the Iraqis to do so, American pilots flying overhead and troops watching from the south bank of the Euphrates River were told to do nothing.
That was a failure of even greater strategic consequence. As former Vice President Cheney has written, “Our failure to do more to protect the Shia from Saddam contributed to a sense of betrayal and suspicion that affected our relationships twelve years later when America was confronting Saddam once again.” As recently as last November, James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, felt the need to apologize for that U.S. failure 20 years ago — in sometimes emotional meetings with Shia politicians and tribal leaders — in an effort to nurture trust with the Iraqi leadership.
To be fair to all three presidents, the commander in chief has a moral responsibility for the servicemen and women under his command. But there was no need for American forces to move any deeper into Iraq in 1991, or for American ground troops to fight in Bosnia or for the United States to go to war in Syria today. The key failure in Bosnia, like today’s failure in Syria, was the refusal to let the Bosnians have even basic defensive weapons, such as anti-tank missiles. For the Syrians today, the United States could also assist in creating protected sanctuaries on the Syrian border in Turkey and possibly even Jordan. It might even be possible to establish sanctuaries on the Syrian side of the border, as was done belatedly for the Kurds in northern Iraq.
It is clear by now that the regime of Bashar al-Assad is simply using the Kofi Annan mission as a cover to continue the killing while the United States and other countries that call themselves the “Friends of Syria” use it as a reason or an excuse for inaction. Sanctions will not persuade the Assad regime to surrender power, and talk about an embargo on luxury goods is a cruel joke.
If the United States were to take a leadership role, it would probably find support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, among others. The Saudis have money and Turkey has geography and a capable military. But neither will act on its own or without the political cover that an American leadership role could provide. Yet the United States is not even following, much less leading.
Only after overwhelming majorities in the both houses of Congress, led by then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), voted in 1995 to end the arms embargo did President Clinton finally act decisively in Bosnia. Today, President Obama should listen to Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and other members who understand the role the United States can and should play in Syria.
On the present course, even if the Syrian opposition wins, there will be many more people killed, more blood scores to settle and deep bitterness about the failure of American support. At worst — and probably more likely — Assad will keep his hold on a shattered country. That will be a victory for him, and also for Iran, and a defeat for the Syrian people and for all of their “Friends,” first and foremost the United States.
Wolfowitz, an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar, served as deputy secretary of Defense, Ambassador to Indonesia and assistant secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.