Is America on the right side of history?

America sees conflicts shaded in black or white and avoids all complex and nuanced ambiguities.

Is America on the right side of history [Getty]
The world is a messier place than imagined by those who see the world in black and white, writes Aronson [Getty]

America observes the world from the relative safety of its faraway shores and sees conflicts shaded in black or white. The complex and nuanced ambiguities that define all conflicts are avoided, if not denied outright. Far easier to man the battlements, when, as US President Barack Obama is fond of saying, America and all that it does in the world is a reflection of the fact that the US is “on the right side of history”.

Moral clarity is the rule – for the American public and policymakers alike – an easy and clean divide between good guys and bad guys. In my youth it was a backyard game of cowboys versus Indians, or the real battles pitting nasty Communists, whether in Cuba, Moscow, or Vietnam, against true-blue Americans and their trustworthy allies.

Who then are today’s outliers, those who have lost history’s coin toss?

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In his first inaugural address, Obama ventured an answer: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history …”

Slaughter of innocents

How does this formulation help decide what to do about the slaughter of innocents in Aleppo?

There is no shortage of well-deserved moral outrage at events now underway in Syria’s commercial capital. If Syria proudly considers itself the “heartbeat of Arabism”, then Aleppo is the heartbeat of the revolution against Assad and the regime he represents.

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The “moderate Syrian opposition”, and as always Washington and the “Friends of Syria”, are on the side of the angels. Putin and Assad captain Underworld’s A Team.

What happens however, when the moral clarity that Americans crave is itself a mirage?


Washington has no problem placing responsibility for all that is wrong today at their feet. Assad has long been a popular and all but unanimous target.

Even Gaddafi enjoyed a short period of sunshine in American eyes before the tables turned. Assad has never been so honoured. Russia’s entry into the list of America’s adversaries too has a long history, now being resurrected. Washington’s antipathy toward Putin is newer, but these days no less virulent than the views animating Assad’s demonisation.

What happens however, when the moral clarity that Americans crave is itself a mirage?

Dividing the world into good guys and bad guys makes it easier to pick a winner and mobilise popular and military support for its victory – Syria being the most recent case in point.

But is this the best way to understand how the world really works, let alone to make it the lodestar for your policies?

This dubious proposition is the key to the Obama administration’s intellectual and policy concept regarding Syria in general and, recently, Aleppo in particular.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad [REUTERS ]
Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad [REUTERS ]

On July 31, 2011, Obama declared that Assad’s “use of torture, corruption and terror puts him on the wrong side of history”. A self-evident policy conclusion proceeded seamlessly from this fact. Days later Obama didn’t close the case on Assad, but instead opened a Pandora’s box.

Hard-edged US policy

“The future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way,” Obama said in a written statement on August 18. “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”

Most people have misinterpreted this sentence, and forgotten the one that followed it.

“The United States,” Obama continued, “cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria.”

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This announcement was not a declaration of a new hard-edged US policy, but rather the honest and ambiguous reflection of the president’s heartfelt aspiration. In the ambiguities that stubbornly govern foreign policymaking, Obama’s call for Assad to step down has never defined US policy in the way many expected or feared. It was rather the reflection of Obama’s misplaced hope, that in view of Assad’s place in history’s scales, his departure would result without much help from Washington.


At almost every point since then Obama has viewed with great scepticism, and given the unparalleled destructive tools at Washington’s disposal, relative restraint, the effort to act upon his pronouncement. Such is the case today when the chorus demanding that the US confront Assad’s and Russian perfidy by escalating the use of force has sucked all of the oxygen out of a more reasoned debate on US options.

This militant agenda was neatly expressed by Senator John McCain, who continues to see Syria as a arena where Gog and Magog battle God for the soul of humanity.

“The US and its coalition partners must issue an ultimatum to Mr. Assad – stop flying or lose your aircraft – and be prepared to follow through. If Russia continues its indiscriminate bombing, we should make clear that we will take steps to hold its aircraft at greater risk. And we must create safe zones for Syrian civilians and do what is necessary to protect them against violations by Mr Assad, Mr Putin and extremist forces. At the same time, we must provide more robust military assistance to the vetted Syrian opposition groups that are fighting the regime.”

The world, including Syria, is a messier place than imagined by those who see the world in black and white. Those who apply this lens as they seek to distinguish good guys from bad guys, Islamists from freedom fighters, even “vetted” opponents of the regime from brothers without such sanction, are bound to be disappointed. It is Syrians who, it must be remembered, will continue to suffer the consequences of the battles now raging, and bear the extraordinary costs of these unrealisable dreams.

Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle Eastern affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.