by Joel Brinkley
Samantha Power used to be best known for her tour-de-force book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide",
in which she correctly accused the United States of willfully ignoring genocide in Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia and elsewhere.
"Despite graphic media coverage," she wrote, "American policymakers" are "extremely slow to muster the imagination to reckon with evil."
Now Power sits in the Obama White House, a senior staffer on the National Security Council. She's watching along with everyone else in Washington as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues to slaughter his own people -- on average about 15 of them each and every day. Once again, the United States is showing a lack of "imagination to reckon with evil."
Early this month, the Arab League hauled Syria in for a talk. Syria agreed to a cease-fire with the demonstrators who have been in the streets since March, challenging Assad's rule. Political prisoners, 3,000 of them, were to be released and the army withdrawn to its barracks. The State Department issued a bland statement, saying Syria will face "growing isolation" if it fails to comply with the agreement.
Well, the very next day, Syrian troops killed another 11 protestors. No soldiers returned to their barracks, not a single prisoner was released. The death toll continued to increase day by day.
So then on Saturday, the Arab League held what it called an emergency meeting at its headquarters in Cairo and suspended Syria's membership. Syrian representatives are to clear out their desks and leave town. Back in Syria, meantime, human-rights groups reported that 13 people were killed that same day (and more than 100 Sunday through Tuesday).
This time, President Obama issued a statement, saying: "After the Assad regime flagrantly failed to keep its commitments, the Arab League has demonstrated leadership."
Well, Mr. President, where is your leadership?
Sure, Obama is preoccupied with the elections, the economy and assorted other dilemmas. But when is there ever a time when the United States is not facing several serious problems at the same time? One important measure of a presidency is its ability to react effectively to world events as they occur. That's why 50,000 people work for the State Department and almost 500 for the White House.
Now, more than eight months after Assad showed himself to be a mass murderer, guilty of crimes against humanity, Washington has proffered a few fallow sanctions and carefully worded statements. That's all.
Syria is a state sponsor of terror and a nuclear-weapons aspirant. Shouldn't Washington care?
Human Rights Watch issued a fat report last week that also shows just how "evil" Assad's forces are. It describes tank gunners opening fire on Syrians participating in a sit-in. Soldiers who decline to fire are shot dead on the spot.
The report quoted one Syrian who was walking home after Friday prayers in Homs and passed a military checkpoint. "After we passed, they started shooting down the street. Some old people had stayed in the mosque, but when they started to leave, the forces fired on them, on everyone passing in the street."
The United States dominates the NATO alliance, and in recent days Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, has been repeatedly offering this message: "Let me stress that NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Syria." That's probably intended to assuage Russia's stated concern that approving stronger United Nations sanctions against Syria, its ally, would lead to NATO military action, as happened in Libya.
But after the Arab League vote on Saturday, Russia made clear it will still do nothing of consequence. "We will try and persuade" the government "to take a more constructive position and think about their country," Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov intoned. In other words, Russia is sticking with that old trope: Dialogue, not sanctions, is what's needed. With Russia's threatened veto, the Security Council will do nothing more.
The Foreign Policy Initiative, a generally conservative nonprofit institute, advocates "continued U.S. engagement -- diplomatic, economic, and military -- in the world." And it offers a long list of steps the U.S. could take in Syria, including: Impose travel bans on Syrian businessmen allied with Assad who have to travel as part of their work. Help Syrian exile groups counteract signal-interference technologies the government uses to block opposition radio and television broadcasts.
The list of low-cost but potentially effective measures is quite long. With those or other actions, it's important that Washington step up so that the U.S. is not, once again, guilty of an unwillingness "to reckon with evil."