Anne Applebaum concludes her column today with some good advice:
Two decades ago, five years ago and today, the source of the problem is the same: The president of the United States wishes to represent things — justice, fairness, international norms — that he cannot, or will not, or doesn’t know how to defend in practice. In the future, it would be far more just, and far less cruel, for the president, and the rest of us, simply to say nothing at all [bold mine-DL].
I’m doubtful that Applebaum wants this to be how future presidents respond to these conflicts, but it’s sound advice all the same. During the post-election protests in Iran in 2009, Obama was faulted for not doing more to “speak out” in support of the protesters. If only he had “spoken out” more forcefully, Iran hawks keep telling us, it would have…well, they don’t really know what it would have done, but it would have done something. As we have seen from the Syrian case over the last two years, “speaking out” does nothing for the people suffering from regime brutality, but it does create the impression that the U.S. is prepared to do something on their behalf when, in fact, it is not. In retrospect, Obama’s “Assad must go” rhetoric makes sense only if we see it as an attempt to “correct” for the administration’s perfectly defensible response to the Green movement, which caused him to declare Assad’s removal from power as a U.S. goal that he thought would happen without much U.S. involvement. This proved to be the major mistake from which all other errors of Obama’s Syria policy have flowed.
Future presidents and this one would do well to abide by a few basic guidelines for how and when to comment on foreign conflicts and disputes. First, there should be an overall aversion to having the president comment at length on another country’s internal conflict or dispute. If that is unavoidable for some reason, the president ought to refrain from making any declarations about the legitimacy of the foreign government, and as a general rule he shouldn’t call for the removal of a foreign leader unless he wants to be saddled with the responsibility for removing him. There should be no indications made that the U.S. intends to offer material or military aid to the government’s opponents when that aid is not likely to be forthcoming, and statements to that effect should be made only after carefully considering whether providing any kind of aid would be useful and in the American interest. There has been a default assumption in Washington over the last decade and more that the U.S. should usually side with foreign protest movements and political oppositions, and thereby adopting their political goals as our own. That impulse to take sides in foreign disputes and conflicts needs to be curbed if not banished entirely.