As the carnage in Syria surpasses a death toll of 80,000, Arabs and others throughout North Africa and the Middle East -- myself included -- are praying for an American intervention sufficiently robust to end Bashar al-Assad's reign of terror. Never in the history of Syria, even during the bloody reign of the tyrant's father Hafez, have atrocities been perpetrated to this degree. It is arguably, as well, the region's greatest humanitarian tragedy in over a thousand years.
I travel often between my home in Casablanca to Washington, where I share ideas and glean ideas from many friends in the policy community. Over the past two years they have helped me to understand the various reasons for President Obama's reservations about military options in Syria -- such as, for example, the enforcement of a no-fly zone in the Syrian north or committing arms to Syrian rebels. The president's concern that any US military role in the conflict will eventually lead to American soldiers on the ground is understandable, and reflects views shared by a substantial number of Americans. So is the painful awareness that American support for Islamist rebels in Afghanistan in the 1980s contributed to the rise of Al-Qaeda -- and that Al-Qaeda sympathizers, in turn, are among the fighting forces in Syria today.
These views reflect Americans' admirable capacity for introspection and desire to plan for the future based on lessons from the past. But other past American engagements in the Middle East offer different lessons that should also be taken into account.
In the years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in the run-up to Obama's 2008 election, Americans markedly expressed their disdain for the unilateralist style of President George W. Bush. He was often compared unfavorably to his father, President George H. W. Bush, who in 1990 built a broad international coalition, including many Arab states, to oust Saddam Hussein's troops from Kuwait. The latter president's achievement, and not the 2003 war, more accurately compares with the potential military victory Obama could help achieve in Syria. Solidarity with the victims of the Assad regime is overwhelming in the Arab world. Not only is every Arab country that borders Syria -- as well as non-Arab neighbors Turkey and Israel -- willing to assist; so are Arab peoples and states farther afield, including my own country, Morocco. King Muhammad VI has conveyed his willingness to come to the aid of the Syrian population, as do his people kingdom-wide. So have most Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: They are prepared to contribute their fighting power, intelligence capabilities, and financial resources to the campaign,and largely offset any burden on the US economy.
Americans have long grappled with the problem, as well, of how to improve esteem for their country in the Arab world. Hostile feelings toward the United States in the region are a serious national security concern. Since September 11, the US government has tried to address the problem by investing considerable resources in a longterm media and public relations campaign -- but so far, judging from public opinion surveys of the region, these efforts have not succeeded.
Arab esteem and gratitude toward the United States would decisively shift for the better if it helps to save the people of Syria. Here is a case where American interests and values are in lock step with the Arab world's most urgent aspirations. By acting according to their conscience -- and ours -- Americans could create a new dynamic whereby Arab publics support America with unprecedented passion. Imagine the good Americans could do with this goodwill. Imagine the loss Americans would sustain by rejecting the chance to achieve it.