Twelve years after the publication of Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell, former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote her memoir Hard Choices in which Syria section was titled as “Syria: A Wicked Problem.” Samantha Power, current US ambassador at UN, in her book told the US inaction and reluctance to take lead in international arena during the instances of different genocides and humanitarian disasters in 20th century. “A Problem from Hell” was a label used by some members of the Clinton administration during the Bosnian conflict to explain almost impossibility to resolve it. Clinton’s account of Syrian problem during her tenure as a Secretary of State and even after that as an informal advisor in the instances of crisis, reveals how the US started to perceive the problem inherently “a problem from hell” and why US failed to act in the last three years.
Hillary Clinton’s new memoir, which, by many, is considered as a start for her campaign for 2016 presidential election, has been debated for the last two weeks in the US. Although more than the content of the book, Clinton’s comments about her family’s financial status after they moved out from the White House have been discussed so far, there are also significant segments of the book that shed light on the US policy on important international events in the last five years of Obama administration. One of these issues is Syria.
Clinton defines the Syrian problem, after giving accounts of several failures to resolve it, as “a wicked problem.” For her, it was a wicked problem because “wicked problems rarely have a right answer; in fact part of what makes them wicked is that every option appears worse than the next. According to her, Syria was one of these wicked ones because “Do nothing, and a humanitarian disaster envelops the region. Intervene militarily, and risk opening Pandora’s box and wading into another quagmire, like Iraq. Send aid to the rebels, and watch it end up in the hands of extremists. Continue with diplomacy, and run head-first into a Russian veto. None of the approaches offered much hope of success.”
Although Clinton is right to indicate the complexity and multidimensionality of the problem, the problem evolved since the beginning of the demonstrations in Deraa. Together with some other international actors, US has also responsibility with its inaction the transformation of the problem into a wicked one. Clinton’s account of US handling of Syria question demonstrates how past foreign policy mistakes of US led to this inaction. The members of the administration, including President Obama and Secretary Clinton repeatedly remembered the mistakes that were committed before the Iraq War and tried to avoid to be involved in another conflict in the Middle East. In fact, many in the US administration have seen the Syrian question just as another “problem from the hell” and have considered US action as the best course of action available.
Iraq War was not the only conflict that haunted US administration. When there were some proposals to help the opposition forces to stand up against Assad in order to force the regime for a transition, those who opposed to these proposals referred to the outcomes of the US aid to mujahedeen groups in Afghanistan. However the risk averseness of the US did not bring any good for Syrian, regional or US interests. As US administration avoids any form of action on the ground, the radical groups acquired more strength, the Syrian regime gained more self-confidence and the US allies in the region started to have second thoughts about their relations with the US. Moreover during this period, Syria has turned into a failed state that could provide a ground for the emergence and spread of illicit trade and trafficking. With the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the conflict now started to destabilize the whole region as well.
However, more importantly Syria with the hundreds of thousands of dead and millions of refugees, has become the most significant humanitarian disasters of the recent history. Although Clinton mentioned her efforts in the Syria part of her book, (of course we need to wait the accounts of other actors of US foreign policy decision making as well for a more complete picture of this process) history will judge her within an administration that fails to stop the killings of civilians in this conflict. In terms of its impact to US credibility the Syrian conflict will be at least as detrimental as US inaction in Rwandan genocide. The members of Clinton administration, including Madeline Albright for years could not provide a convincing explanation of US inaction to stop the genocide in this country. Just like that, in the future, the members of US administration will have to spend a lot of time to explain the reasons of US inaction and how the US administration watched the killing of hundreds of thousand of Syrians. Recent increase in the amount of aid to the opposition forces, including TOW missiles and limited military assistance, may not be sufficient to fix this mistake and the Syria as “a wicked problem” may be another chapter in Samantha Power’s book.
This article was originally published in Daily Sabah on June 30, 2014.