Inaction by West Increases the Danger in Libya and Syria: View

Across the Arab world, centuries of authoritarian traditions are crumbling. Unfortunately, the bitter truth is that the West has been almost absent in the creation of a new Arab order, unlike its deep involvement in Eastern Europe after communism’s collapse.

There are no simple solutions. Look at the trial in Egypt that has riveted Arabs from North Africa to the Persian Gulf. For Bashar Assad in Syria and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, the sight of Egypt’s disgraced former President Hosni Mubarak on a gurney inside a cage in a Cairo courtroom, with his sons in prison clothes seated behind him, is now embedded deep in their memory.

To Assad and Qaddafi, Mubarak was the liberal, the friend of the West. If this is how the West allows its friends to be treated, what would happen to us, they may wonder. As a result, the two strongmen will no doubt fight even harder to save themselves and their families from the fate of the Mubarak clan. And that is the West’s problem as the slaughter in Syria escalates and the civil war in Libya drags on.

The rulers of Syria and Libya see no way out. Exile is unthinkable. Qaddafi and one of his sons have already been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Assad probably expects to be indicted, too. And if Mubarak’s fate is what happens with a trial at home, Qaddafi and Assad feel like so far they have escaped from death row. Surrender isn’t an option.

In Libya, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization continues its half-hearted air campaign. That ensures an advantage for the rebels but doesn’t guarantee victory; it only prevents defeat. After months of brutality in Syria, the United Nations on Aug. 3 finally condemned the violence that has already led to the deaths of more than 1,700 civilians.

Little, Late

Each step from the outside world seems too little, too late. And yet, the protagonists in this historic drama, the civilians fighting for their lives and their future, still look to the West for leadership. For them, the sovereign-debt crisis in Europe, the debt-ceiling debate and unemployment problem in the U.S., and the rise of China are abstractions. They remember that just a few years ago George W. Bush, like some ancient Roman emperor, projected U.S. power halfway around the world to oust a government in Iraq and foster the perception of American omnipotence.

Fighting for Reform

To his credit, President Barack Obama pledged that the events of the Arab awakening are a priority and that the administration would wield every tool of statecraft to help those fighting for reform. We recognize that the circumstances in Egypt, Libya and Syria are all different. And we know that appetites are low for new initiatives in international affairs. But we wonder whether the White House fully appreciates what is at stake. Has every possible non-military action really been examined?

Some Republicans in Congress have undoubtedly made the administration’s job more difficult. Perhaps the most successful step yet taken in the Syria crisis was sending Ambassador Robert Ford to the city of Hama a few weeks ago. It was a classic case of creative diplomacy, showing Damascus that the world was watching and recording its actions. Now, some in the Senate are saying the U.S. should copy Italy’s decision to withdraw its ambassador from Syria. That is perverse. Syrian military forces have just begun a siege of Hama, in which electricity, water and supplies have been cut off, and entire neighborhoods are being bombarded.

Ambassador Ford will return to Syria on Aug. 5. If the Syrian authorities allow him to return, we urge that he continue his efforts to shine a light on the crackdown in Syria and to maintain channels of communication with the protesters, the opposition and even the government. That is the least the U.S. can do.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at