U.S. must be civilization’s gatekeepers

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports President Obama's call for military action in Syria.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supports President Obama's call for military action in Syria.

There are a number of legitimate reasons to oppose intervention in Syria. There are many smart people, people whom I respect and with whom I share a philosophical foxhole, who lay out those reasons with eloquence and passion.

Why now?

(Why, indeed, when we did nothing in Rwanda and the Sudan?)

Syrian President Bashar Assad is no worse than the Islamic jihadists challenging his authority.

(True, even though he has bigger guns.)

It’s a civil war. Why should Americans risk our own blood and treasure to save Syrian souls?

(Good point, except today’s Syrians are tomorrow’s Iranians, and both tribes hate us.)

Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and it took us more than a decade to notice, or to care.

(Yes, and look how well that worked out.)

I sympathize with the reasoned arguments against a wholesale intervention, one that involves boots on the ground and the ghostly, ghastly prospect of dead soldiers.

But none of them can drown out the single most horrific sound known to the victimized and the tortured around the world: silence.

Silence is deafening when it comes in response to cries for assistance. It is soul-crushing when it follows the pleas of children who have been gassed in their classrooms and paralyzed in their beds. It makes the eardrums bleed, the head pound and the heart break.

I find myself in the unenviable position of agreeing with Nancy Pelosi, someone whose silence is normally precious gold. The former Speaker of the House has, albeit half-heartedly, supported intervention, although one suspects that it has more to do with remaining a member in good standing of Team Obama and not because she’s abandoned her pacifist roots.

To be fair, many of those who oppose intervention are at least partly motivated by a desire to deny this Hamlet of a president his wish (whatever that is on any given day).

But as someone who has spent 20 years dealing with refugees and asylum applicants, I simply cannot fathom the possibility that my country will again do nothing but wring its hands in the present and engage in earnest, useless mourning in the not-so-distant future.

Before she became Obama’s controversial ambassador at the United Nations, and before she called Hillary Clinton a “bitch,” Samantha Power wrote a magisterial book called A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. In it, she examines how America has reacted to “race murder” over the past century, and comes to this disturbing conclusion: “It is in the realm of domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide is lost. American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference. They reason that they will incur no costs if the United States remains uninvolved but will face steep risks if they engage.”

It kills me to say that she’s right, given the fact that Power carries the water for Team Obama and shed her scholarly mantle when she crassly attacked Clinton. And yet, her message is crystal clear, and correct: The moral imperative of stopping genocide is no match for the need to save your political soul.

Not everyone who takes a stand for or against intervention is motivated by rank partisanship. Far from it. There are some liberals who are challenging the president as they did with the drone strikes, and some conservatives who are lining up to give him cover.

Who could have imagined, in the dark days of Campaign 2008, that John McCain would have ever joined forces with the harbinger of hope and change? This is even more striking when you hear McCain’s former running mate taunting the president and his decisions (or lack thereof). While I like Sarah Palin (a lot), I think that she channels the worst aspects of the “noninterventionists” when she says things like, “Let Allah sort it out.”

Tell that to the dead babies, please.

But those who think that we have no business getting involved in someone else’s family feud are willing to surrender our legitimate reputation as civilization’s gatekeepers, the ones who see the red line and refuse to shrug our shoulders when evil crosses over.

People like Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz seem to believe that we should all just live in a star-spangled bubble where the rest of the world can be kept at bay while we tend to our own. That’s not the lesson I was taught by my very conservative parents. It may not take a village to raise a child, but it sure as hell takes an international community to make sure that that child isn’t butchered.

There is also naïveté in the belief that the use of chemical weapons doesn’t pose a national security risk to the United States. Allowing Assad to kill his own people essentially guarantees that he won’t stop at Syria’s border. And if he won’t, neither will his friends the mullahs.

We didn’t bomb the concentration camps. The Killing Fields of Cambodia filled up with blood, and we turned away. Seven thousand fell at Srebrenica while the West looked on.

We say “never again.”

It’s time to mean it.

Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

©2013 Philadelphia Daily News

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