If it was beginning to sound like a nightmarish case of déjà vu to you, it should have.
America is a country that chooses the direction in which to aim official sympathy very carefully.
The United States has looked the other way for decades while government-sanctioned thugs raped, plundered, and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Darfur region of western Sudan. We have settled for some serious finger-wagging in Robert Mugabe’s general direction as he systematically destroyed the economy of Zimbabwe, brutally repressed minority rights, murdered any opposition, and made a mockery of the country’s so-called free elections.
We see the bodies of the victims of the widespread violence in Egypt every night on the evening news. The American-backed democratic election process didn’t turn out so well there. It wasn’t reminiscent of Philadelphia as much as Baghdad. President Obama abhors the killing in Egypt, but not to the extent that there is any serious talk about withdrawing the $1.5 billion aid that the U.S. extends to the same military forces that are perpetuating it.
How does the fact that we have the capability for launching unmanned drone attacks at anything that looks peculiar on a satellite image make us any less responsible for what is euphemistically termed "peripheral damage"? (Drones have emerged as the military equivalent of Wall Street’s wheeler-dealers. They can inflict enormous damage and the people responsible don’t even have to glance up from their padded chairs.) Secretary of State John Kerry is pretty sure - but not absolutely sure - that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad ordered the use of chemical weapons against civilians in suburbs of Damascus. The last time we saw Kerry so dour, he was "deeply troubled" by the fact that Edward Snowden might be offered political asylum in Russia, a country historically antithetical to the precepts of freedom and democracy. Mr. Snowden, you may recall, had the temerity to expose the National Security Agency’s wholesale abuse of power and its blatant and illegal intrusion into the private lives of American citizens. Mr. Kerry seemed to be pitching his criticisms from a conspicuously thin sheet of ice.
Eight years of The Decider and his wrecking crew substantially weakened our credibility when it comes to crying foul concerning any abuses of rules that govern civilized nations as set forth by the Geneva Convention. Torture is still casting its black shadow over our moral impeccability and one can imagine a collective "Look who’s talking" from the rest of the world when the U.S. gets huffy about something. Like the Supreme Court, a universal skepticism of American methods and motives is another gift that just keeps on giving from the Bush years. There is still some debate over whether or not chemical weapons were used at all, but there also seems to be a lack of any other rational explanation for the estimated 1,400 deaths in Damascus. If Mr. Kerry’s conclusion is proven true, Assad’s credentials as another monster loose in the world will be verified. America needs an easily identifiable villain before we convert our moral outrage into bloody conflict.
It is quite possible, however, that the public’s bitter memory of our last excursion into ridding the world of one of its monsters has tempered the response to Assad’s complicity. Less than ten percent of Americans support any military intervention. Why shouldn’t we be skeptical? We were told exactly the same thing about Saddam Hussein’s grievous character flaws when Saddam assumed the position of primary target following the embarrassing revelations that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and the promised cache of nuclear weapons failed to materialize.
Epic monsters exist and they always will. It shouldn’t be all that difficult to understand why someone from another part of the world might regard a man who aggressively pushed his own country into a futile and disastrous conflict in the Middle East and then profited personally from sales of war material might be regarded as something of a monster. President Obama seemed much too eager to support an armed response to the Syrian atrocity. It was an unnervingly abrupt decision from a man who has proven himself a master of equivocation. No one disputes that the calculated deaths of over 1,400 men, women, and children is an affront to civilization. But, in a country where bridges are collapsing with disturbing regularity, where schools are underfunded and violence is rampant, and where the disparity between the haves and have-nots is approaching the size of the Grand Canyon, we have to ask ourselves if the United States can afford to do battle with global monsters anymore.
Barack Obama, despite a typically eloquent plea on behalf of the dead in Syria, is enough of a savvy politician to know when he is entering a very dark tunnel all by himself. France offered the administration more encouragement than the American public was willing to extend. The president has decided to let Congress debate the issue of an armed intervention. It may be a classic instance of passing the buck, especially when that buck has been passed to a collection of people notorious for not being able to decide much of anything, but in this instance, it was exactly the right thing to do.
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.