Oct. 5, 2016 7:14 p.m. ET
“Aleppo” is about to enter the expanding global dictionary of shame. The Syrian city and its population are on the brink of becoming an annihilated ruin. One of Aleppo’s greatest casualties will be the foreign-policy reputation of the Obama presidency.
It’s not merely that the U.S. has done so little directly to help the Syrian rebels. The more fundamental failure is that Mr. Obama has refused to permit the arming of people who are willing to fight on their own behalf against a dictator committed to the mass slaughter of innocent civilians.
Aleppo has become a classic siege. The city, and everything living or standing inside of it, has been under indiscriminate bombardment since late 2015 by missiles and barrel bombs dropped on neighborhoods. All this has been rained down on Aleppo by the Syrian air force of Bashar Assad in synchronization with Vladimir Putin’s Russian bombers. With supply lines from Turkey cut off, Aleppo has been in a state of siege for a month, unable to receive food or medical supplies.
Most of Aleppo’s hospitals have been bombed to rubble, and not many doctors remain. Three of its four main water-pumping stations are destroyed. The broader Syrian conflict has killed nearly a half-million people and created 4.8 million refugees.
The civilized world, which might be defined as people who aren’t living daily with aerial bombardments, passed through this moral hell as recently as the early 1990s. The U.S. president was Bill Clinton.
The names of the two besieged cities that transfixed the world then were Dubrovnik and Sarajevo, both in the former Yugoslavia. The mass murderer directing their destruction was Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist head of Serbia.
Things being what they are now, most millennial voters likely don’t recall much about these haunted places in the Balkans. Still, their history is worth telling.
The siege and shelling of Dubrovnik, a beautiful and historic city in Croatia on the Dalmatian coast, ran from October 1991 to the following June. The siege of Sarajevo lasted four years until 1996.
It is hard to overstate how the sieges of Dubrovnik and Sarajevo transfixed the world—in part because electronic media put their flames and rubble on view constantly but mainly because no Western nation was doing a thing to stop it. That war’s entry into the dictionary of shame was “ethnic cleansing.”
As in Syria today, foreign-policy pragmatists argued that the Balkans were a hopeless caldron of historic tribal animosities. Why get involved? And indeed the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton stood back.
Here is a key footnote: In June 1991, Milosevic’s Yugoslav army invaded neighboring Slovenia. The Slovenes, however, were armed and ready. They defeated the Milosevic forces in 10 days. Four months later, Milosevic laid siege to Dubrovnik. The world gaped in horror—but would do nothing to help.
Oh, it did do one thing: endless diplomacy of the sort John Kerry has been doing with the Russians now over Aleppo, intended as always to “stop the violence.”
The Bush and Clinton administrations adhered to a U.N.-imposed arms embargo that disarmed only Milosevic’s target populations in Croatia and Bosnia. Arming them, came the familiar argument, would only “increase the violence.” So they died by the thousands beneath shelling that destroyed their cities.
Second key footnote: The Clinton administration, while refusing to commit ground troops, tacitly allowed arms shipments in 1993 to the Croats and Bosnians. They defended themselves, and finally, NATO bombed the Serbs. That war ended with the rough peace of the Dayton Agreement in 1995.
Third key footnote: The leading U.S. proponent in 1992 of lifting the arms embargo? Senator Joe Biden. That was then. From 2011 until now the Obama administration has dithered over arming the Syrian rebels, a decision of monstrous consequence, given Russia’s homicidal military support for Mr. Assad.
We will wait for Mr. Obama’s memoirs to discover the moral calculus behind his abandonment of Syria’s rebels. We suspect the math will go something like this: I spent all my political capital on the Iran nuclear deal, forestalling a long-term apocalypse in return for the near-term disorders in the region.
Well, the world has paid a high near-term price—in cash, security and moral capital—for one nuclear deal with Iran. That includes Aleppo.
One such price is the corrosion of people’s ability to react to events such as this bloody siege. The global outcry over Milosevic was much greater than this. Messrs. Assad and Putin know that relentless savagery correlates directly with a world going numb—once its leaders have pulled down the shades and walked away. Our two presidential candidates are offering not much more than that.
What we learned in Dubrovnik and Sarajevo in fact wasn’t a big lesson. It wasn’t about nation-building or boots on the ground or seizing someone else’s oil fields.
It was that when the bad overwhelm the innocent, the least we can do is arm people willing to fight to defend themselves. If not, you invite, indeed you permit, humanitarian and moral catastrophe.
Tags: Aleppo, Aleppo Is Obama’s Sarajevo, arm the rebels, Balkans, barrel bombs, Bashar Assad, Bill Clinton, Croatia, Dubrovnik, foreign policy, humanitarian, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Obama, Obama has refused to permit the arming of people who are willing to fight, Putin, Russia, Russian bombers, Sarajevo, Serbia, shame, Slobodan Milosevic, Syria, Turkey, Yugoslavia