A Massacre in Syria Brings Foreign Affairs Into the Race, Briefly

PHOTO: This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network, May 26, 2012 purports to show shrouded dead bodies following a Syrian government assault on Houla, Syria.AP Photo
This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network, May 26, 2012 purports to show shrouded dead bodies following a Syrian government assault on Houla, Syria.

Unemployment, the "war on women," immigration, gay marriage. ... Who has time for Syria?

Foreign policy has crept back into presidential politics, but it won't be here for long, so soak it up while you can. In the past few days, President Obama and Mitt Romney have jousted -- lightly -- over U.S. policy toward Syria, where a dictator is murdering scores of innocent people.

Obama says the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has to step down, but Obama won't give weapons to the Syrian opposition. Romney says Assad should step down, and he wants to give weapons to the rebels.

That's about the only substantial difference in policy for the two candidates, and the small debate has probably received all the media attention it's going to, because, as CNN's John King mentioned at a GOP primary debate, "The American people don't often pay attention to what's going on in the world until they have to."

Why should voters care about the chaos in Syria?

Edward Djerejian, a former ambassador to Syria, says: "If Syria devolves into a civil and sectarian war, it will destabilize the Middle East. ... It will have an immediate impact affecting the national security interests of key neighbors -- Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Jordan."

And, of course, it could raise gas prices -- only because any major destabilizing effect in the Middle East will drive up the cost of oil.

That message hasn't really sunk in yet with the general public, and the candidates themselves haven't been debating this aggressively, just in statements on paper. They've spent most of their time this week fencing about jobs policy, Bain Capital and Solyndra.

It could be the case that the 2012 race, the first big election after the "Arab spring" and the killing of Osama bin Laden, pushes foreign policy to the margins of discourse.

Obama doesn't want a doctrine, some sort of all-inclusive guideline that says when the United States should intervene in a troubled country and when it must stay away.

The White House got involved in Libya, but won't in Syria. Syria is smaller, close to its ally, Iran, and could rekindle memories of the anguishing war in Iraq, which is right next door.

In March 2011, Obama explained his rationale for fighting Muammar Qadhafi in a big speech:

"It's true that America cannot use our military wherever repression occurs," he said. "And given the costs and risks of intervention, we must always measure our interests against the need for action. But that cannot be an argument for never acting on behalf of what's right. In this particular country, Libya, at this particular moment, we were faced with the prospect of violence on a horrific scale. We had a unique ability to stop that violence: an international mandate for action, a broad coalition prepared to join us, the support of Arab countries and a plea for help from the Libyan people themselves. We also had the ability to stop Qadhafi's forces in their tracks without putting American troops on the ground. To brush aside America's responsibility as a leader and, more profoundly, our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such circumstances, would have been a betrayal of who we are. Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

No doubt there are probably Syrians wondering how many more reports of slaughtered civilians need to make their way to Obama's desk before he steps into affairs in Damascus.

"This can rapidly flip out of everyone's control -- events on the ground, and humanitarian disasters that we're seeing on the YouTubes and everything," Djerejian said.

Romney recently gave Obama an "F" on his foreign policy report card, and conventional political strategy would dictate that he's probably opposing the president on Syria because he doesn't want to appear hypocritical by agreeing with him after criticizing his entire foreign affairs agenda. Romney has blamed Obama's "lack of leadership" for allowing the massacre in Syria, and said that the United States and its allies should "arm the opposition so they can defend themselves."

"I don't really see any strategic value in the United States arming anybody," said Jim Carafano, the director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. "Let's be honest. It's irrelevant. ... Who knows what Syria's going to look like six months from now?"