Obama is Losing the Hearts and Minds of the Arab World

The world has little patience for the regime of Bashar al-Assad at this point. With hundreds of thousands of dead, two million refugees – half of which are children – and four million internally displaced throughout the Syrian territory, there are no shortage of victims and witnesses to Mr. Assad’s brutality. His attempt to counter Mr. Obama’s media offensive with a live interview will not redeem his image.

And yet it is the Obama administration’s image and that of the United States that is guaranteed to suffer as a result of the President’s decision to ‘sell’ intervention in Syria. Why? Because the case for intervention cannot be made in a way that will get Mr. Obama the votes he needs without further alienating the Arab world. 

Swinging back and forth in his strike sales pitch from a moral to a geostrategic rationale is costing Mr. Obama hearts and minds that he cannot afford to lose in the Middle East. The rhetoric he is using in his efforts to convince constituents at home will further entrench long-standing scepticism of America’s willingness to act multilaterally and guarantee any strike a particularly poor reception in the Arab and Muslim world, much of which has suffered from misguided U.S. geostrategy. 

Rhetoric within the United States is full of binary references – you are either ‘for or against the military strike against Syria’ and ‘pro or anti-Assad’. These simplistic semantics are doomed to estrange the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims who do not support either side. The Western media is making out the Arab governments only quietly supporting military intervention as weak, criticizing them for failing to stand up against Mr. Assad and rally their publics behind the United States. This blunt coverage epitomizes how little appreciation there is for the complex dynamics at play in and around Syria.

Lack of understanding matters, because it means Obama must eschew nuance if we he wants to get the job done. Setting aside the scepticism that many rightly hold toward the claims that a limited strike against the Assad regime will not lead to a full out war that destabilizes the entire region, let us explore further why Mr. Obama’s current choice between two sales pitches is lose-lose.

It is understandable that the United States may want to intervene because of its geostrategic interests but framing this intervention in any way but a way to rescue future Syrian civilians will lose the moral high ground and with it the Arab and Muslim public opinion.

A military intervention in Syria must be made for the sake of the Syrian people. It is understandable that the United States may want to intervene because of its geostrategic interests but framing this intervention in any way but a way to rescue future Syrian civilians will lose the moral high ground and with it the Arab and Muslim public opinion.

But geostrategy plays better to those who fear any hint of the moralistic exceptionalism that played such a big part in leading the United States into Iraq. And those individuals make up the vast majority of members whom Mr. Obama must convince to back a strike.

In attempt to bridge the gap, Mr. Obama has claimed that the United States must act because a ‘redline’ has been crossed. But this is nothing more than an effort to defend his own leadership and the United States’ global standing. And it does not translate into protection of the Syrian people. Sweeping in to punish Mr. Assad for crossing the redline and then leaving will not save Syrians from Mr. Assad’s wrath. In Congress, the claim is being made that Assad is testing U.S. resolve and that the United States must show that it means what it says. This too rings hollow to Arab publics who merely see a strongman trying to defend his ego, the rhetoric all too similar to that used by many who have ruled in the Arab world.

Mr. Obama’s rhetorical dilemma is clear: he needs to win support at home, but the more successful these geostrategic arguments prove, the less sympathy his case for intervention generates abroad. Linking intervening in Syria to the nuclear file in Iran, stemming the rise of Iranian influence, or defending the interests of America’s ally Israel are all arguments that sideline or completely ignore the defense of Syrian lives. While Congress may want to hear about how this intervention is a threat to U.S. geostrategic interests or its allies, Arabs are listening too, and they’ve heard it before and seen where it leads.

The Arab people have been caught in the crosshairs of Washington’s geostrategic calculations far too many times. It is not just the memory of Iraq and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives were lost. This is also about the Israeli attacks on Gaza in 2008 and Lebanon in 2006, and more. In all of these conflicts, the U.S. did not draw a redline at the lives lost. Many in the Arab world are now wondering why a death by sarin gas counts for more than one by a missile or bullet.

If this strike against Syria is really about preventing the further death of civilians, then Mr. Obama needs to stop with his pendulum sales pitch and stick to the moral argument for intervention. If the vote fails, it fails. This is better than clouding the debate with geo-strategic justifications that may lead to short-term action, but that will also have long-term consequences that will haunt everyone, the United States and the Arab world, alike.

Unlike many Americans, Arabs and Muslims are fully prepared to understand U.S. actions as self-serving. They already tend toward perceiving the U.S. as only secondarily interested in protecting the Arab people. It may be too late to walk back the damage done so far in “selling intervention” as geostrategy, but if Mr. Obama doesn’t try, the costs of any strike will be damning.