On August 26, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was asked what the US thought about the dispute between Iraq and Syria. His answer shockingly recalls the last time a US government made that mistake.
First, some background. Iraqi leader Nuri al-Maliki visited Syria on August 18 to discuss the two countries' relationship. He offered Syrian President Bashar Assad a lot of economic goodies in exchange for expelling 271 Iraqi exiles involved in organizing terrorist attacks against their country. Assad refused. Maliki left.
The next day, huge bombings struck Baghdad, directly targeting the Foreign and Finance Ministries. More than 100 Iraqis were killed and over 600 were wounded. The Iraqi government blamed the very same exiles living in Syria whom Maliki was trying to get kicked out and implicated the Syrian government directly in the attacks. The two countries recalled their ambassadors; the Iraqis are calling for an international tribunal to investigate.
Enter the US. Since the Iraqi government was created by elections made possible by the US invasion, since the same terrorists murdering Iraqis have killed American soldiers, and since Iraq is a US ally and Syria is a terrorist sponsor allied with Iran, what US reaction would you expect?
Why, support for Iraq, of course. For decades under several US presidents, Syria has been unsuccessfully pressed to kick out terrorists targeting Israel, and later Lebanon. This is an old issue and a very clear one for about a half-dozen reasons.
And what did the Obama administration do?
Declare its neutrality! Here's what Kelly said, reading from his State Department instructions: "We understand that there has been sort of mutual recall of the ambassadors. We consider that an internal matter. We believe that, as a general principle, that diplomatic dialogue is the best means to address the concerns of both parties. We are working with the Iraqis to determine who perpetrated these horrible acts of violence... We hope this doesn't hinder dialogue between the two countries."
BEFORE ANALYZING this response, let me tell you what it reminds me of. In 1990, Saddam Hussein's Iraq was threatening Kuwait, demanding that the weaker neighbor surrender to an ultimatum. Iraq was no friend of America; Kuwait, though not an ally, was a state that had good relations with the US. A decade earlier, America had gone to the verge of war with Iran to protect Kuwait.
What did the US government say? This was a matter between Iraq and Kuwait in which the US wouldn't take sides.
A few days later, Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait. At the time and afterward, everyone said: What a terrible mistake! The announcement of neutrality, the refusal to support a small threatened country against a bullying neighbor ruled by a dictatorship, gave a green light to Saddam and set off a war.
And now the Obama administration has done precisely the same thing. Of course, Syria won't invade Iraq, it will just keep welcoming, training, arming, financing, transporting and helping the terrorists who do so.
The Obama administration has declared the war on terrorism to be over. But it also said that the US viewed al Qaida and those working with it as enemies. The Syria-based Iraqi terrorists fall into that category. America sacrificed hundreds of lives for Iraq's stability. Most of those soldiers and civilian contractors were murdered by the very terrorists harbored by Syria.
HOW CAN the administration distance itself from this conflict instead of supporting its ally and trying to act against the very terrorists who have murdered Americans?
Nominally, of course, the cheap way out was to say: We don't know who did these particular bombings. Well, who do you think did it, men from Mars? Even this is not relevant since the Iraqi demand for the expulsion of the terrorists - who have committed hundreds of other acts - came before the latest attack even happened.
Moreover, the administration not only invoked its obsession with dialogue at any price but did so in an incorrect and dangerous manner. The Iraqi government had sought dialogue, had used diplomatic means and was turned down flat.
So is this administration incapable of criticizing Syria? Even if it wants to engage in talks with Syria, it doesn't understand that diplomacy is not inconsistent with pressure and criticism, tools to push the other side into concessions or compromises.
Looking at this latest development - along with many other policy statements and events during the new administration's term so far - how can any ally have confidence that the US government will support it if menaced by terrorism or aggression? It can't. The problem with treating enemies better than friends is that the friends start wondering whether their interests are better served by appeasing mutual enemies or mistreating an unfaithful ally which ignores their needs.
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