So when unrest in a media-saturated place like the Middle East (as opposed to, say, the isolated Congo) erupts into a full-fledged Syrian civil war, it's on the news nightly. As the terrible toll climbs past the current 70,000 dead (as opposed to the BBC estimate of over 2-million souls in the ongoing Congolese war), pressure mounts on government to intervene. And, more than just the $650 million in assistance that has already flowed from the US to civilian relief efforts for refugees of the conflict the goal is to make the war stop.
The only question is 'How?' It's a dilemma where politics collides with our better angels. There may be no practical way for the US to intervene, without yet another all-in commitment that is unlikely to be considered 'worth it' in retrospect.
Recent history bears out the point: humanitarian intervention is never presented in a cost/benefit case; it's presumed to be free. The public is never confronted with stark choices: would 'peace' in Syria be worth 10 American lives, 500? Your son-or-daughter? A $Billion, $100 Billion?
President Clinton reluctantly entered the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, after the horrors of the Srbenica massacre. While the US-led NATO effort was quickly successful, he got little political credit for it. When he attempted an intervention in Somalia, however, he absorbed enough damage from the 'Blackhawk-down' incident that the US stood-by in the later genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda.
President George W. Bush announced an "ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world" and sought to spread democracy, but his Administration's two massive invasions demonstrated how difficult that goal can be, even for the world's primary Super-Power.
The incumbent has been notably cautious, as ending two exhausting and expensive (every way) wars has preoccupied his foreign policy. Mr. Obama was reticent to take any kind of lead role in the Arab Spring, and showed no enthusiasm for efforts to rid the world of Moammar Gaddhafi in Libya. When finally prodded to air strikes by the imminent slaughter of civilians there, the clamor against that move was loud and immediate at least until the gambit unequivocally succeeded.
The humanitarian urge cuts a broad swath through the land, but not a deep one. Especially not now, with matters elsewhere as yet unresolved satisfactorily. As a final note of caution, there's the principle that if you do Nothing today, you can still do something tomorrow but if you do Something today, it can't be undone -- and it leads you down an unpredictable path.
So, despite all that, if Mr. Obama were to heed the call to arms, what are the options?
Most decisively, the US with allies could invade and destroy Assad's chemical weapons, and his air force, including some 200 (est.) Scud missiles. Those weapons and facilities are geographically dispersed, however, and hidden, often in civilian areas. They would be hard to find quickly, and all bets about their use against allied forces would be off. It's also likely that our troops would have to fight both government and rebel soldiers, many of whom are as hostile to the Great Satan as they are to their ruler. The most effective fighting force among the estimated 70,000 rebels is the 5,000-strong Al Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra. Thus, it's hard to find much of a quorum for this option, even among the most vocal interventionistas (looking at you Senator McCain, every Sunday morning).
If we want to avoid a full-on 'boots' approach, howsabout a no-fly zone? Syria, however, employs a relatively sophisticated Russian-built anti-aircraft system, also dispersed. Although cruise missiles could handle a part of the job of neutralizing it, it seems unlikely that any such set of strikes could be surgical or cost-free in terms of American and civilian lives.
Another smaller step would be arming the rebels with American weapons. But who are those guys? They are a diverse and fractious bunch of at least thirty passionate militias, with neither common traditions nor any central organizing principle beyond their hatred of Assad. Even the tiny Christian community is said to have organized a militia for self-preservation. It is not at all clear that, in the aftermath of a hoped-for civil war victory, these disparate groups wouldn't set upon each other with equal ferocity. We have seen in Iraq how much harder it is to win the peace than the war the grievances of Syria's numerous other ethnic groups against Assad's Alawite minority, and each other, are a monstrous barrier to any postwar unification. I don't think the US is prepared to, or should, preside over such a situation.
Further (if necessary), it would also be impossible to control or even trace those armaments. What's to be done the first time a stray American product downs an Israeli passenger jet or one from Delta Airlines?
Diplomacy, then, appears to be the best among lousy options and it, too, is a very long shot. There is an initiative aborning for the US and Russia to lead peace talks, but, for starters, the US demand for a pre-condition involving Assad's departure is as deeply opposed by the Russians. And that's before we even get down to the regional state rivalries and the divisions within the country itself. Those groups have shown little enthusiasm for the process.
In the largest picture, there is no over-arching, principled doctrine among the world's powers about how to approach such problems, and the Obama Administration has not enunciated or led any multilateral initiative to establish such guidance. Civilian aid has been flowing, but little has been done militarily because it's so hard to make a case for any specific option. Where we go from here is anybody's guess, except that the awful agony of the Syrian people will proceed apace.
What's your view of what ought to be done?
(This note drew heavily from several sources, notably Dexter Filkins' loooong article in the New Yorker.)
Synopsis: see title.