Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Facing the Dictator Alone

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 17, 2011 --  

Western governments can't do much for pro-democracy movements, but there's nothing wrong with trying.

With thousands of protesters clashing with the Syrian dictator's tanks and gunmen, many human rights advocates are decrying the double standard in the way the West is dealing with Syria and Libya. In both countries, government forces have fired on protesters seeking to end the brutal regimes.

In Libya, of course, NATO aircraft have been pounding Libyan forces for nearly two months with a UN mandate to protect civilians, and (with a wink and a nod) to topple the regime. The International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for the country's leader, and France has recognized the ragtag opposition as the legitimate government.

Meanwhile, with Syria, America's presendent has steadfastly refused to call for Syrian President Assad to step down. Turkish and European companies continue to do business with the country despite sanctions.

Critics are quick to blame this inconsistency on base interests. NATO's European countries are the main market for Libya's oil, so the bombing must really be all about oil. in the case of Syria, Israel fears that the fall of the Syrian regime will lead to an even more radically anti-Isreal government. The obvioius conclusion, critics say, must be that America's failure to call for Assad's departure is a bow to the Israeli lobby.

While these special interests have undoubtedly had an effect, the bottom line is that foreign policies cannot be consistent because every country is different. In addition to Libya's oil wealth and Israel's worries about a post-Assad regime, there is the not insignificant difference that Syria's population is much, much, larger than that of Libya and its military is much, much stronger. With American military forces engaged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, there is little appetite or energy for yet another conflict. While a modest American commitment could make a difference in Libya, not so in Syria.

Indeed, America's appetite for continued operations in Libya looks weaker by the day. When the bombing operation began, it seemed likely to follow the model of the Afghanistan campaign a decade earlier. In both 2001's Afghanistan and 2011's Libya, groups of weaker armed rebels controlled some territory but did not have the power to defeat stronger government forces. In Afghanistan, a massive bombardment began in October of 2001, and just over a month later, the rebels marched into the capital. The same has not happened in Libya. After nearly two months of airstrikes, rebels have made only modest gains, and have shown no ability to march on the capital anytime soon.

France, with strong economic interests, may be willing to continue supporting the opposition in a protracted Libyan civil war. America will not and should not. American forces gave a good try at giving the rebels a hand, but it just didn't work. Americans should be under no moral obligation to continue fighting to dislodge the regime in Tripoli.

Ultimately, the struggle for liberty must be the responsibility of the Libyans and the Syrians themselves. This doesn't mean it isn't okay for foreigners to give them help -- military or otherwise -- if it is in proportion to foreigners' interest in the country.

Unfortunately for the Syrians (and increasingly for the Libyans) it appears that no reasonable amount of help from foreigners can solve their political problems. Horrible as it may seem, Syrian protesters will have to face government tanks all alone.

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