In “The Blot on Obama’s Legacy” Mr. Kristof wants us to listen to a 7-year-old girl in Syria. Ms. Collins, in “Who’s Sorry Now? The Country” Ms. Collins says Clinton even leads Trump when it comes to apologies. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Our excuse for failing to respond to mass atrocities used to be that we didn’t fully appreciate the horrors until it was too late. “If only we had known,” became one refrain, along with, “Never again!”
In Syria, we are deprived of that excuse: We have a daily window into war crimes. If you’re on Twitter, follow a 7-year-old girl in Aleppo, Bana al-Abed, @alabedbana, who with her mom’s help is tweeting the carnage around her.
One tweet shows a video clip of Bana looking out the window and plugging her ears as bombs drop. “I am very afraid I will die tonight,” she worried in imperfect English. “This bombs will kill me now.”
“This is my friend house bombed,” Bana tweeted with a photo. “She’s killed. I miss her so much.”
Her mother, Fatemah, an English teacher who has been teaching Bana English for several years, chimes in as well.
“Sleeping as you can hear the bombs fall,” Fatemah tweeted. “I will tweet tomorrow if we are alive.”
I interviewed Fatemah and Bana by email, which they access on a cellphone that they recharge with a solar panel. Bana’s school was destroyed by a bomb last year, and Fatemah said that they were surviving on pasta and rice that were now running out.
“Bana is very weak,” her mom told me.
Russia and Syria appear to be deliberately targeting civilians like Bana.The aim seems to be to bomb and starve civilians into exhaustion and submission, so that they flee or no longer support the opposition, or else support extremists regarded as better fighters. That would bolster the Syrian government narrative that the opposition consists of terrorists who must be fought.
For those of us who generally admire President Obama as a man of principle, it is wrenching to watch his paralysis. As I see it, Syria has been his worst mistake, a huge blot on his legacy.
We can’t be sure that more robust strategies advocated by Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, John Kerry and others would have succeeded, but Obama’s approach has manifestly failed — and after five years, it should be time to reconsider strategy.
Some of you are thinking: This is horrific, but what can the West possibly do? In a previous column, I quoted a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, James Cartwright, about the “many things we can be doing now” in Syria. Charles Lister, author of a recent book on Syria, has written a detailed nine-page plan of action for the U.S. I’ve suggested cratering Syrian military runways with missiles fired from Turkey so that Syrian military aircraft can’t take off (Turkish officials have told me that they would go along with this).
Of course, we shouldn’t dispatch ground troops. But if we had cratered Syrian runways several years ago, as many suggested, the horrors of barrel bombing would have been reduced.
One sign that curbing Syrian bombing is feasible is that we’re already doing it. In August, the U.S. quietly imposed a de facto no-fly zone over parts of northern Syria where American advisers are located. I’m wary of military adventurism and opposed the Iraq war and the surge in Afghanistan, but I also note that in places from Kosovo to Kurdistan the military toolbox has saved lives. Obama himself conducted a military intervention on Mount Sinjar on the Iraq-Syria border that saved the lives of thousands of Yazidi.
The Syrian government has shown that it doesn’t respond to moral appeals but to credible threats of military force. In 2013, when Obama looked as if he might order airstrikes, Syria hurriedly agreed to give up chemical weapons. Secretary of State John Kerry has pleaded with the White House for more aggressive military measures precisely to make a cease-fire more achievable; instead, Obama undercut his secretary of state and denied him leverage.
As a senator, Obama used to complain to me and others that President George W. Bush was too passive about atrocities in Darfur. “I am strongly supportive of us doing what it takes to stop the slaughter that is taking place, and I think that no-fly zones have to be part of that formula,” Obama told me in 2006. He should listen to himself.
Look, cratering runways may not work. It’s easy for those of us on the sidelines to agitate; everything is always more complex than it seems. Except when it’s simpler: Bill Clinton says that his biggest foreign policy mistake was not stopping the Rwanda genocide.
Let’s have this discussion, and also acknowledge the risks of remaining passive. So far, Obama’s paralysis has been linked to the loss of perhapshalf a million lives in Syria, the rise of extremist groups like the Islamic State, genocide against the Yazidi and Christians, the worst refugee crisis in more than 60 years and the rise of ultranationalist groups in Europe. Aleppo may fall, and lives like Bana’s hang in the balance.
If we don’t act after half a million deaths, will we after one million? After two million? When?
Now here’s Ms. Collins:
I don’t know about you, but I’m totally exhausted by the public’s obsession with the vice-presidential debate. Everywhere I go, people are babbling about Mike Pence and Tim Kaine! Who knew it would be so electric? The world can’t stop talking about Veep Vitriol.
O.K., I made that up. I’m sorry. Nobody is talking about the vice-presidential debate at all. This was really just a sneaky way to introduce the subject of apologies.
It came up in the debate, during an argument over who had the most “insult-driven campaign.” Pence saw an opening to mention that Hillary Clinton had once described half of Donald Trump’s followers as a racist, sexist, homophobic “basket of deplorables.” Kaine retorted that at least Clinton had apologized.
Which is true. Clinton said she regretted being “grossly generalistic, and that’s never a good idea.” It would have worked if she had not prefaced her original “deplorables” remark — made at a private fund-raising event — with, “To just be grossly generalistic …”
You can’t say you’re sorry for something you admitted was wrong when you were saying it. Clinton needs new material. A truly sincere apology would probably have been something along the lines of: “I deeply regret having said something at an off-the-record fund-raiser that I wouldn’t want taped and broadcast to the world. You’d think everybody would have learned that lesson by now.”
Still, certainly not the worst apology of the era. That might have been the time a radical rebel group in Syria put up a statement expressing regret for having beheaded the wrong person.
Also, possibly former Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose’s ongoing attempt to apologize for his seamy past by selling balls on which he’d written “I’m sorry I bet on baseball” for $300 and up.
(Cincinnati still has a downtown street called Pete Rose Way, which illustrates the importance of not naming major pieces of infrastructure after people who are still alive. I always found it amusing until I ran across New York’s Donald J. Trump State Park.)
But about apologies: Other rules include not blaming the problem on the hearer (“I’m sorry if you guys were offended”). And not using your apology to repeat the original infraction. Perhaps you remember the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who apologized for making racist statements about Magic Johnson in an interview during which he told Anderson Cooper “some of the African-Americans, they don’t want to help anybody.”
We need a president who will know just the right thing to say if our drones accidentally hit somebody’s presidential palace, or the new ambassador to France gets drunk and demands to know why Parisians aren’t friendly. Clinton’s own apology record is mixed, although lately her comments on the emails have been sounding less like expressions of regret for having been caught.
On this point, like so very many in the current campaign, Clinton’s failings tend to vanish when compared with the behavior of her opponent. If you’re having an argument about who does an apology better, it’s not much of a contest when one of the two parties doesn’t seem to ever admit he was wrong about anything.
A Trumpian apology would be the thing he did recently in Washington, when he retracted years of birtherism by blurting out “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.” Then trying to claim he had done the president a favor by pushing the matter so hard. Then blaming the whole thing on Hillary at the end of a promo for his new hotel.
People, we are being deprived of our God-given right to complain about both presidential candidates. Every time someone comes up with a Hillary flaw, someone else will do a comparison. Yeah, while Clinton was secretary of state the Clinton Foundation took money from foreign bigwigs to help fund its work with impoverished people overseas. But the other guy spent his charity’s money on a six-foot portrait of himself. Any more questions?
For Trump surrogates like Pence, the best response is to deny the original offense ever occurred. During the debate, Kaine pointed out that Trump had said women who seek an abortion should be punished. Hard to deny, given the fact that he made the comment on MSNBC. But Pence said Trump “would never support legislation” along that line.
And it’s true that hours after the MSNBC taping, the Trump campaign issued a statement saying he only wanted to punish doctors, and adding a comment from The Man himself: “My position has not changed — like Ronald Reagan, I am pro-life with exceptions.”
We have here the perfect encapsulation of the current Republican presidential campaign:
1) Trump says something very strange.
2) The campaign says he didn’t really say it.
3) Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan.
Pence, cornered by Kaine, finally blurted out, “Look, he’s not a polished politician like you and Hillary Clinton.”
Well, that would be one way of putting it.