The Obama Administration is now satisfied that the Syrian government has used poison gas in its civil war against forces seeking its overthrow. The President has said that using gas -- a war crime by most standards -- would be crossing a "red line" that would force his hand. He now considers the U.S. government entitled to intervene in the conflict, at a minimum by providing arms to the insurrection. He may later attempt to establish a "no-fly zone" to protect the insurrection from Syrian air power. These decisions come at a time when another foreign intervention, by the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, appears to have turned the tide of the Syrian conflict in the government's favor. One can't help thinking that Obama feels a need to make some gesture now so that he (and his party) will not be accused by the U.S. opposition of having abdicated our alleged duty to rebels against dictatorship. Should one think this aloud, however, certain American opinionators will take moral offense at the idea. The President might be able to ignore neocon Republicans like Senator McCain, but Democrats also are beating the drums for some sort of war against Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, Richard Cohen published a column in the Washington Post denouncing "cold-hearted liberals" for opposing intervention in Syria. Cohen is a liberal on domestic issues but pretty much a neocon on foreign policy, at least in the Middle East. In his June 3 column, however, Cohen tried to deny any policy agenda in Syria. He resents some perceived ad hominem comments by anti-interventionist liberals but resents more their arguments against intervention. He disputes the argument that Syria would be "another Iraq," claiming instead that "The whole idea of intervening early — it may already be too late — was
not to impose some U.S.-friendly regime but merely to stop the killing
and avoid an immense humanitarian calamity." He reiterates, bitterly: "Syria was never going to be the Iraq war. It was going to be a humanitarian
intervention, an attempt to stop the killing, end the misery — use U.S.
power to do good. This was not colonialism or neocolonialism or
imposing a repellent Western regime on the always virtuous East. All we
wanted — all I wanted — was to end the killing."
Cohen betrays himself with that bit of sarcasm about the "always virtuous East." It's the old dig against anti-interventionists, anti-colonialists, anti-imperialists, and even abolitionists: you oppose us because you love some other more than your own kind. But I doubt whether anyone in the U.S. thinks Assad virtuous. No one here that I know of opposes intervention against Assad out of love for him. At the same time, if Cohen is correct that interventionists only want to end the killing, they can prove their good intentions and disinterested benevolence by proposing an end to the killing without the immediate exit of Assad from power. To be fair, as Cohen notes ruefully, even the President has said that Assad must go. But if our first object is peace, the means to peace can't be letting just one side have its way. If the insurgents claim there can be no peace with Assad in power -- that there's absolutely nothing he can do short of abdicating to mollify them -- then someone looking at the war purely in humanitarian terms needs to blame them, not Assad, for the persistence of war. That may rankle those who assume that the dictator is always wrong, but the humanitarian standpoint and the moral standpoint aren't always the same. Whether Cohen's standpoint is either is open to question. As always, cases calling for moral or humanitarian intervention can be pointed out all over the world. Why, then, is Cohen so concerned with Syria? Probably for the same reason the Saudis and their Sunni friends are, as are the Israelis: because the Alawite regime is considered part of an aggressive Shiite axis, encompassing Iran and Hezbollah and threatening regional stability, i.e. the hegemony of non-Shiites. It's easy to complain that in Syria the particular Shiite sect is an oppressive minority, but the larger issue between Sunnis and Shiites may need to be settled peacefully before peace is possible in any individual country. Merely stopping the killing in any given place doesn't solve the underlying problem --but it may serve somebody else's interests. The advocates of humanitarian intervention like to ask what their opponents stand for, but they should be more honest, or at least more concrete, about what they stand for, first.