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Kristof: 'What kind of peace are you calling for?'

  • FILE - This image provided by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show dead bodies after an attack on Ghouta, Syria on Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013. The early-morning barrage against rebel-held areas around the the Syrian capital Damascus immediately seemed different: The rockets made a strange, whistling noise. Seconds after one hit near his home, Qusai Zakarya says he couldn’t breathe, and he desperately punched himself in the chest to get air. Hundreds of suffocating, twitching victims flooded into hospitals. Others were later found dead in their homes, towels still on their faces from their last moments trying to protect themselves from gas. Doctors and survivors recount scenes of horror from the alleged chemical attack a week ago. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, File)

Critics of U.S. military action in Syria are right to point out all the risks and uncertainties of missile strikes, and they have U.S. public opinion on their side.

But for those of you who oppose cruise missile strikes, what alternative do you favor?

It's all very well to urge the United Nations and Arab League to do more, but that means that Syrians will continue to be killed at a rate of 5,000 every month. Involving the International Criminal Court sounds wonderful but would make it more difficult to hammer out a peace deal in which President Bashar Assad steps down.

So what do you propose other than that we wag our fingers as a government uses chemical weapons on its own people? So far, we've tried peaceful acquiescence, and it hasn't worked very well. The longer the war drags on in Syria, the more al-Qaida elements gain strength, the more Lebanon and Jordan are destabilized, and the more people die. It's admirable to insist on purely peaceful interventions, but let's acknowledge that the likely upshot is that we sit by as perhaps another 60,000 Syrians are killed over the next year.

A decade ago, I was aghast that so many liberals were backing the Iraq war. Today, I'm dismayed that so many liberals, disillusioned by Iraq, seem willing to let an average of 165 Syrians be killed daily rather than contemplate missile strikes that just might, at the margins, make a modest difference.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the number of dead in the civil war, is exasperated at Western doves who think they are taking a moral stance.

"Where have these people been the past two years?" the organization asks on its website. "What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence."

In other words, how is being "pro-peace" in this case much different in effect from being "pro-Assad" and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?

To me, the central question isn't, "What are the risks of cruise missile strikes on Syria?" I grant that those risks are considerable, from errant missiles to Hezbollah retaliation. It's this: "Are the risks greater if we launch missiles, or if we continue to sit on our hands?"

Let's be humble enough to acknowledge that we can't be sure of the answer and that Syria will be bloody whatever we do. We Americans are often so self-absorbed as to think that what happens in Syria depends on us; in fact, it overwhelmingly depends on Syrians.


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