WASHINGTON — Horror in Houla is exposing President Barack Obama’s criteria for intervention abroad to new scrutiny and reviving the question: if it was right to stop atrocities in Libya, why not in Syria?
The United States and allies Monday reacted to the killing of 108 people, including 49 children in the Syrian town, by expelling Damascus’s diplomats to add to already tight sanctions on President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
But the move served as much to reflect the paucity of diplomatic options with teeth available as Kofi Annan’s peace plan falters, as to offer the prospect of dislodging Assad or arresting Syria’s slide into prolonged civil war.
To justify the use of force in Libya last year, Obama said America could not intervene everywhere civilians face brutal repression, but could not use that fact as “an argument for never acting on behalf of what’s right.”
Western powers have little appetite for a comparable operation in Syria, but Obama’s political foes want more assertive US leadership — arguing that Washington should at a minimum arm rebels taking on Assad.
White House spokesman Jay Carney on Tuesday dismissed parallels between the NATO no-fly operation in Libya and the situation in Syria.
“There’s a significant amount of analysis you could do on why Syria is different from Libya,” he noted, saying action against Colonel Moamer Kadhafi followed unity among regional governments and a UN Security Council blessing.
Obama took office in 2009 as Americans’ patience for quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan wore thin, but as he brought troops home, sought to frame principles for the use of US force abroad.
Officials have balked at the idea of an Obama “doctrine” partly to avoid difficult-to-answer comparisons between the crises in Syria and Libya.
But in the case of Libya, Obama established clear tests for when “the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security.”
He argued Washington had a unique ability to stop horrific violence, a broad international mandate for action, an international coalition ready to act, the backing of Arab nations and a plea for help from Libyans.
Several of those tests cannot be met in the current crisis, bolstering the view that a “realist” Obama sees Libya-style action as unworkable.
Ideas for a UN-enforced attempt to use force, for humanitarian zones or the arming of rebels, are likely to be blocked by Damascus’s ally Russia and possibly China, thwarting hopes for an international coalition.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did tell Fox News the “military option” was always available in Syria.
But it seems unlikely an air-strike strategy that helped rebels break Kadhafi’s regime, would halt the brutal house-to-house violence in Syria.
Obama, facing reelection in November, has little incentive to deploy US ground troops and would likely struggle for foreign support to do so. On Memorial Day on Monday he promised to send US soldiers to war only when “absolutely necessary.”
NATO members are also wary of throwing assets into the fight, at least without an unlikely UN endorsement: the topic was not even on the agenda of last week’s summit of the western alliance in Chicago.
Obama is facing rising political heat on Syria — though the issue seems unlikely to be a dominant one as his war-weary nation faces a November election dominated by the economy.
But the prospect of watching a string of civilian massacres unfold in Syria is a painful one, especially for a president buoyed by the moral authority of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Republican White House hopeful Mitt Romney saw a political opening afforded by the Houla massacre, seeking to undermine Obama’s strong credentials as commander-in-chief.
“After nearly a year and a half of slaughter, it is far past time for the United States to begin to lead and put an end to the Assad regime,” Romney said, calling for the arming of Syrian opposition groups.
But the White House balks at further “militarizing” Syria, wary of providing arms to rebels, some of whom are seen as having Al-Qaeda links.
“Not all of them represent and serve the democratic interests of the vast majority of the Syrian people,” Carney said.
US officials are also wary of ethnic and religious splits within Syria and the prospect civil war could spill over and fracture Lebanon’s fragile peace.
But it seems likely, that if Washington does not send arms, some Arab states might, to help rebels outgunned by government forces using Russian and Iranian weapons.
Russia’s reluctance to jettison its ally Assad also leads the president on to sensitive ground as he seeks to preserve his “reset” of ties with Moscow with President Vladimir Putin.
Bereft of other options, Washington appears to be hoping that rising diplomatic heat on Moscow will lead to some common approach designed to ease Assad out and forestall the slaughter in Syria.