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Three cheers for the Arab League

The Arab League has finally begun to take the well-being of Arab peoples as seriously — more seriously — than its cherished dream of Arab unity. The League negotiated with Syria’s dictator to produce an agreement Assad would cease violence against the people of Syria. When Assad violated his side of the deal, the Arab ...

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

The Arab League has finally begun to take the well-being of Arab peoples as seriously -- more seriously -- than its cherished dream of Arab unity. The League negotiated with Syria's dictator to produce an agreement Assad would cease violence against the people of Syria. When Assad violated his side of the deal, the Arab League held him to account, decrying his continuing aggression. At Saturday's League meeting, they formally sanctioned Syria's leader for continued violence against the Syrian people and not honoring his promises of political dialogue and release of political prisoners. They called for a meeting of Syrian dissidents and urged consensus on them to more effectively pressure Assad. The Arab League set a clock ticking for Assad to comply; if he does not within four days, further political and economic sanctions will go into effect.

The only previous time the Arab League has been willing to call out a member government was after the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi as he closed in on Benghazi. Qaddafi was a special case, having attempted to assassinate heads of other Arab governments. And the Arab League was following a U.N. lead;  in taking action on Syria, the Arab League has led where Russia and China prevent condemnation at the United Nations.

These actions constitute an admirable strategy of escalating and increasingly public pressure by regional governments. The vote in the twenty-two member Arab League was 18 condemnations of Syria (only Yemen and Lebanon voted to shield Syria; Iraq abstained). Technically, League rules require unanimity. Yet, as NATO did during the Kosovo war, the Arab League found a way to express its will rather than let itself be hamstrung by technicalities.

The Arab League has finally begun to take the well-being of Arab peoples as seriously — more seriously — than its cherished dream of Arab unity. The League negotiated with Syria’s dictator to produce an agreement Assad would cease violence against the people of Syria. When Assad violated his side of the deal, the Arab League held him to account, decrying his continuing aggression. At Saturday’s League meeting, they formally sanctioned Syria’s leader for continued violence against the Syrian people and not honoring his promises of political dialogue and release of political prisoners. They called for a meeting of Syrian dissidents and urged consensus on them to more effectively pressure Assad. The Arab League set a clock ticking for Assad to comply; if he does not within four days, further political and economic sanctions will go into effect.

The only previous time the Arab League has been willing to call out a member government was after the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi as he closed in on Benghazi. Qaddafi was a special case, having attempted to assassinate heads of other Arab governments. And the Arab League was following a U.N. lead;  in taking action on Syria, the Arab League has led where Russia and China prevent condemnation at the United Nations.

These actions constitute an admirable strategy of escalating and increasingly public pressure by regional governments. The vote in the twenty-two member Arab League was 18 condemnations of Syria (only Yemen and Lebanon voted to shield Syria; Iraq abstained). Technically, League rules require unanimity. Yet, as NATO did during the Kosovo war, the Arab League found a way to express its will rather than let itself be hamstrung by technicalities.

The shame for Americans is that the Arab League, so long a regressive force in the politics of the region, has a better Syria policy than does the Obama administration. 3,500 Syrians have been killed by their government this year; during that time, our government has adjusted its position from considering Bashar al-Assad a reformer — Secretary Hillary Clinton’s memorable phrase — to saying "he cannot deny his people’s legitimate demands indefinitely." 

The "Obama Doctrine," as the White House has termed its choices on Libya, gives to Russia and China a veto — literally — on U.S. support for freedom movements and human rights activists. This is disgraceful. Without a U.N. Security Council Resolution, the Obama administration will not consider significant support to the Syrians engaged in a fight to protect themselves from a despot.

Clinton outlined the rationale for treating the Syrian case different from the Obama Doctrine: "our choices also reflect other interests in the region with a real impact on Americans’ lives – including our fight against al Qaeda; defense of our allies; and a secure supply of energy." One might ask the Secretary of State which of these interests would be in conflict with working to rein in the barbarism of an enemy of the United States who fosters terrorism and has killed 3,500 Syrians this year alone. Adding insult to injury, Clinton gave this explanation in a speech on promoting democracy.

Where the Arab League has been negotiating with Bashir al-Assad to curb his predations against the people of Syria, the Obama Administration fecklessly repeats that Assad must step down. And this from a President that insisted he would negotiate with anyone.

After a brave start by Ambassador Robert Ford in Syria, the State Department has recalled him because Syria is dangerous. Less so to an U.S. ambassador than to the people he was bearing witness for, though, and who now have no potent symbol of America’s support for their cause. 

Withdrawing our ambassador is, in fact, the sadly appropriate symbol of Obama administration policy toward Syria. They pretend engagement but are unwilling to run risks in support of freedom. Instead they pontificate piously from a safe distance while others undertake the difficult, honorable work of bringing despots to their knees.

How fortunate are the people of Syria that they have the governments of Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab League to stand up for freedom and universal human rights; what a pity the Obama administration will not.

President Obama’s statement supporting the action of the Arab League says it all: "the Arab League has demonstrated leadership in its effort to end the crisis and hold the Syrian government accountable."

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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