US needs to learn the virtue of doing nothing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 2011, 12:00am


The Obama administration wants Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to go - finally. Washington thinks Yemen should replace its dictator, yet it supports the dictator who rules next-door Saudi Arabia. Do American officials really believe anyone pays the slightest attention to their ever-changing opinions about who should rule where?

The Obama administration's political pirouettes during the 'Arab spring' have been breathtaking. As protests rose in Egypt, Washington supported Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. As the regime tottered, the administration endorsed a phased transition. As Mubarak's end neared, US officials endorsed his ouster. None of these pious pronouncements had the slightest effect in Cairo.

Yet the administration played much the same game in Yemen. When protests first sprouted, the US government backed President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As opposition expanded, and Saleh's hold on power loosened, foreign policy aide John Brennan announced: 'The United States believes that a transition in Yemen should begin immediately.' Brennan met Saleh to urge him to resign. The latter paid Brennan no mind.

A similar soap opera is occurring in America's relations with Syria. When demonstrations began against the Assad family dictatorship, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Assad a 'reformer'. And, as the revolt spread, the US simply encouraged the Assad dictatorship to respond with dialogue instead of force. Washington refused to suggest that Assad step down.

But, after months of repression and bloodshed, President Barack Obama finally declared that 'the time has come for President Assad to step aside'. The next day, however, Assad was still in power.

Washington's options remain quite limited. Additional sanctions aren't likely to achieve regime change. And America doesn't need another unnecessary war in another Muslim nation.

Instead of constantly filling the atmosphere with more hot air - or worse, attempting to back the hot air with force - US officials should shut up. Washington's principal objective should be to stay out of foreign conflicts.

The US government should reaffirm its general commitment to democracy and human rights. But American officials should drop their pretence of being able to micromanage events. In the end, US officials must fight the very American desire to Do Something. When the next crisis erupts somewhere around the globe, the president might more fruitfully respond by doing nothing. This would truly be a revolution in Washington, and a far better tactic than what passes for foreign policy in the Obama administration.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to president Ronald Reagan