(Bloomberg View) -- When future historians debate why the U.S. did so little to stop the tragedy in Syria, they should dig up the speech President Barack Obama just gave at a U.N. summit on refugees.
While Democrats signaled their collective virtue by denouncing a tweet from Donald Trump Jr. that compared Syrian refugees to Skittles, Obama lectured foreign ministers and heads of state this week on the same topic. "And just as failure to act in the past, for example, by turning away Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, is a stain on our collective conscience," Obama said, "I believe history will judge us harshly if we do not rise to this moment."
Obama went on to state something obvious: "We must recognize that refugees are a symptom of larger failures -- be it war, ethnic tensions, or persecution." But then he said something bizarre: "If we truly want to address the crisis, wars like the savagery in Syria must be brought to an end, and it will be brought to an end through political settlement and diplomacy, and not simply by bombing."
This of course is a straw man. No one who has argued for more U.S. involvement in Syria has said more bombing alone will solve these problems. What's more, the U.S. is doing a lot of bombing in Syria today against the Islamic State.
But there is also something sinister about Obama's formulation. The U.S. is not just another country when it comes to the collective security of the Middle East. Through its alliances and interventions, it has been the region's reluctant sheriff since the end of World War II. In this sense, it's rich of Obama to pose as a Jeremiah when he has acted more like a Nero.
His administration's pursuit of diplomacy and publicly stated policy to not attack Syrian forces gave Russia a green light to establish its forward air bases in Syria a year ago. As Secretary of State John Kerry pursued Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to restart peace negotiations, the Russians deployed bombers and jets to Syria and struck a pact with Iran to regain territory for the dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
This toothless diplomacy has further immiserated the Syrian people. The U.S. government confirmed Tuesday that it was Russian aircraft that destroyed an aid convoy this week, halting the delivery of food and medicine to the besieged citizens of Aleppo, and killing 20 aid workers.
It's worse than this though. This atrocity was committed during what was supposed to be a cessation of hostilities negotiated by Kerry and Lavrov this month in Geneva. The second phase of that agreement would have established a center in Jordan where Russian and U.S. military officers would share intelligence to target the Islamic State and other jihadis in Syria.
Think about that for a minute. Kerry negotiated a deal to collaborate with an air force that just bombed an aid convoy and has bombed hospitals and civilians now for a year. It's true that over the weekend, the U.S. bombed Syrian soldiers. It apologized for that mistake. The Russians at the time demanded the UN censure the U.S. This week Lavrov ridiculously has urged the UN to gather all the facts about the bombing of the aid convoy.
Kerry has mustered outrage at all of this. On Wednesday he told a UN meeting on Syria: "The primary question is no longer: What do we know? The primary question is: Collectively, what are we going to do about it? In other words, this is a moment of truth. It’s a moment of truth for President Putin and Russia; it’s a moment of truth also for the opposition; and it’s a moment of truth for the people who support the opposition."
Let me add that this also a moment of truth for Obama and the Democrats who support him. Kerry is reduced to chasing his Russian counterpart around the world to beg for cease-fires and negotiations because Obama never tried to deter Russia's intervention a year ago. As a result, there is no real chance to establish the no-fly zone that people like Kerry lobbied for in 2014 and 2015 behind the scenes, and that Hillary Clinton calls for publicly today. That's a policy that would have saved lives and pressured Assad to negotiate an end to the war.
The tragedy in Syria is primarily the fault of Assad. But Obama's failure to challenge Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters has extended the war that has forced so many Syrians to flee their country. It's easy to tweet the truism that these refugees are people, not Skittles. It's much harder to come to terms with the role Obama's inaction has played in upending those people's lives.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.