April 11, 2022 | New York Post

Biden, like Obama, talks tough but does little about Putin’s war crimes

April 11, 2022 | New York Post

Biden, like Obama, talks tough but does little about Putin’s war crimes

Will President Joe Biden’s cri de coeur Putin is a war criminal” become former President Barack Obama’s “Assad must go?”

Lofty words; noble intentions, for sure. But Obama came and went. Bashar al-Assad is still the president of Syria. That is partly because the American president allowed his initial “Assad must go” to evolve from moral outrage to policy obstacle as he shied away from conflict. Will his successor do the same, uttering high-minded words but producing little action?

Obama declared in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” By April 2015, a Washington Post analysis noted that “Obama’s determination to topple Assad remains one of the main points of friction between the United States and Russia in Syria.” And “Avoid that friction” replaced “Assad must go.”

Obama permitted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was already a war criminal back then, to preserve his equities in Syria “to avoid friction.” He let his secretary of state, John Kerry, turn a cruel Russian ruse — decommissioning Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile as a substitute for an American-led punitive military campaign — into a pretext for inaction. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, offered Kerry a fig leaf to disguise a complete lack of balls (pardon my French). It was a farce, as fig leaves go, because Assad continued to murder civilians with chemical weapons long after Russia had brokered the deal to remove them.

Putin learned his lesson well. America spoke with a big stick but no longer carried one.

Obama proclaimed his own red line, very publicly, on Syria’s chemical-weapons use. Assad, with Russia’s cover, tested his mettle and found it wanting. Russia doubled down on its support for its beleaguered Syrian ally, eager not only to regain its lost sphere of influence in the region but to show the world that America’s strong words were empty threats. With Russia in the Syrian skies, its fleet in Tartus and its boots on the ground, every pledge to prevent the next mass atrocity became subordinate to the need to “avoid that friction.”

Now here we are, in 2022, and Russia has invaded Ukraine, unprovoked. Moscow dehumanized its victims to fan the flames of hatred, motivating Russian soldiers to loot and massacre and Russian citizens to cheer the massacre. Meanwhile, the Kremlin quickly shut down any nascent domestic dissent and closed any media platform that dared criticize, as it used the old, true and tested totalitarian playbook to mobilize society.

Russia planned to decapitate Ukraine’s political leadership, intelligentsia, civil society, political opposition. Its military indiscriminately unleashed its firepower on civilian targets. It bombed hospitals and humanitarian corridors it agreed to open. Its troops relied on mobile crematoriums in the martyred city of Mariupol, hastily buried murdered civilians in mass graves and burned victims’ bodies after summary executions to cover up their war crimes.

Which brings us to Biden’s “Putin is a war criminal.

His declaration is correct. The evidence overwhelmingly supports it. But US policy is not following through to that statement’s logical conclusion. The question must be asked then: Is the president’s statement akin to what commentators and concerned citizens allow themselves from time to time, given that their abundance of moral outrage is unburdened by the responsibility of leadership? Is it the lament of decency offended by a moral obscenity? Or is it policy?

Is “Putin is a war criminal” descriptive, prescriptive or aspirational? Will Biden do as his predecessor did, shedding crocodile tears while Syria smoldered? Or will the president leave no stone unturned until Putin, the war criminal, and his willing executioners face the earthly justice of a war crimes tribunal, as they deserve?

This is an honest question. President Biden is not Obama. His administration has done more for Ukraine than Obama’s ever did to rid Syria of Assad. The burdens the president carries and the risks he must confront as he antagonizes Russia are not diminished by the depravity of Russia’s crimes: Putin is not the tinpot dictator with a tinpot economy whom he defended in Syria.

But we need to know: Does “Never again” mean what the words suggest? Or do American presidents proclaim “Never again,” again and again, while they let Bucha and Mariupol become another Srebrenica, another Aleppo, another problem from hell they can care to lament but not afford to solve?

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Twitter: @eottolenghi. FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

Military and Political Power Russia Syria Ukraine