Some clouds

Cohen: Syria shows why the world needs a policeman

  • FILE - This image provided by by Shaam News Network on Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, purports to show several bodies being buried in a suburb of Damascus, Syria during a funeral 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)

Generals fight the last war. Liberals protest them. The statements of groups on the left regarding Syria are redolent with references to Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, Vietnam. Not mentioned is the first Gulf War, which promptly ended by diktat of George H.W. Bush, or more to the point Kosovo or Bosnia, two military actions that did what they set out to do. The killing stopped.

What perplexes me is how the calls for Congress to rebuff President Barack Obama are empty of moral outrage. The civil war in Syria has cost more than 110,000 lives. It has produced a humanitarian calamity — well over 2 million refugees. Bashar al-Assad has massacred his own people by conventional means and is accused of using poison gas several times, most recently on Aug. 21, when his military murdered 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.

What do the Nation, liberalism's longtime journal, and others on the left propose to do about all this? Go to the international community. Where is this entity? I suppose it is the United Nations, where not a peep of outrage has come from Russia or China. Both have stymied any attempt to rein in the Assad regime. In 2011, the two even vetoed a Security Council resolution that threatened mere sanctions if Syria didn't stop killing its own people. Syria took heart and stepped up the killing.

Shall we wait and take moral instruction from the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping? Putin, having become an accessory before the fact, may now bring pressure on Syria — a consequence of Obama's threat to use force. The president may finally have gotten Putin's attention.

I pick on the American left because it is liberal and because that suggests empathy, concern and internationalism. The American right is now going through one of its periodic bouts of lunacy, reverting to a comfy isolationism-cum-selfishness that has often characterized it.

(I should note, though, that back in the late 1930s, Norman Thomas, the six-time socialist presidential candidate, supported the isolationist America First movement.)

Still, I look to liberals to make common cause with the underprivileged, the unfortunate and the weak. If that doesn't describe the people of Syria, then what does? Can the U.S. help them? We certainly could have. We certainly didn't.

Look at what happened at the end of August. Three or so days before the atrocity, U.S. intelligence agencies were getting wind of an imminent gas attack. Did Washington warn Damascus to stop? We don't know. But we do know that if it did, it probably would have been dismissed. After all, the Syrians had used gas before. A year earlier, Obama had declared the use of gas a "red line," and then did nothing about it. He said he was going to send the rebels small arms and such. I guess he did not use Amazon, because most of the stuff was very slow in arriving. All in all, the president did nothing.

This cannot be said of Assad. He just kept on murdering.

Last month's chemical weapons attack is reminiscent of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica in which about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. This happened in Europe, 50 years after the Holocaust. This happened with plenty of advance warning, after numerous previous atrocities and with a supine Dutch U.N. contingent nearby. Srebrenica was what the former U.N. official Diego E. Arria calls "slow-motion genocide." It happened because NATO had already shown that it would allow it to happen.

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