Auschwitz. Bergen-Belsen. Buchenwald. Treblinka.
Rwanda. Cambodia. Darfur. Armenia.
Mass murder. Genocide. Ethnic cleansing.
Syria. Seriously. Syria.
When I hear pundits — on the left or the right — say that the death of hundreds of thousands of non-Americans does “not affect our national interest,” I shudder.
When I see thousands of children gassed in Syria in 2013, I’m reminded of the millions of children gassed in Europe just two generations ago.
When I hear the story of nine Syrians imprisoned in a box six-feet-by-two-feet long for two weeks, gasping for air, with seven of them dead by asphyxiation and the other two barely alive, hallucinating, and having to sleep either standing up or on top of corpses of what once were their fellow human beings, I’m reminded of the gas chambers themselves.
When I talk to the brave fighters in the Free Syrian Army, left to die by “Western interests” because helping them leads to “complexities” that may cause “practical difficulty” for “allied militaries,” I’m reminded of the brave fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, somehow miraculously killing a few Nazis as the vast majority of Polish Jews went down to certain death. Meanwhile the Russian army, their erstwhile allies, sat on the other side of the river, waiting for them all to die. I’m reminded of the American military, also supposedly allied with the victims in the death camps, able to do tens of thousands of sorties over Germany and Poland but unable to find the time to bomb a single guard tower or gas chamber at Auschwitz.
When I think about our interventions in Libya (which I supported, because the people were rising up against a dictator who threatened to massacre them all) and Iraq (which I did not, for they were not, at least not in 2003), I’m worried that the United States will be perceived as only intervening for oil and never for humanitarian reasons. Even worse, I’m worried that these perceptions may be right.
I’ve been consistent. I angrily called my members of Congress when the people of Sarajevo were slaughtered and loudly advocated for our intervention in Kosovo — an intervention, by the way, I’m exceedingly proud of. We stopped genocide with no American ground troops or loss of American life.
I angrily called my government to stop killings in Rwanda. And I did several radio shows advocating for intervention in Darfur. We could save hundreds of thousands of lives, I cried. We did nothing.
I opposed our invasion of Iraq. The crimes committed by Saddam Hussein occurred when Saddam was supported by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, but these horrible murders, including gassing of innocents, had long stopped by 2003. I don’t willy-nilly want the U.S. to invade any country with a terrible dictator. We had learned in Kosovo that ground troops are often unnecessary. If the Iraqi people were not rising up against their dictator in 2003, why were we involved?
And while I supported our invasion of Afghanistan, that was for self-defense, not prevention of mass murder. As soon as the regime harboring Al-Qaeda was toppled, we should have left.
I advocated for intervention in Libya and was proud of my country, finally and all too reluctantly, for stopping a Libyan government poised for mass murder with relatively little cost and no American lives lost in six months of fighting. The lesson of Libya seems to me to be that an allied “no-fly” zone, coupled with desperate Libyans on the ground fighting for their lives, will often have success.
And not just success on the ground. In the subsequent Libyan election, the grateful Libyan people did something remarkable in the Arab world: They rejected both a brutal secular dictatorship and an Islamist theocracy, preferring instead a secular democracy. And no, the attacks in Benghazi do not somehow rule out our Libyan success. (The Libyan government may be too weak to handle all the terrorists in its midst, but one awful incident does not mean that helping the people of Libya was a mistake. After all, we could not prevent 9/11 either.)
And now we come to Syria. Two years ago, I angrily went on television to denounce the Syrian government’s murder of 3,000 pacifists. On radio and TV, I repeatedly warned that doing nothing would lead to the massacre of tens of thousands more. I warned that Al-Qaeda would come in. I argued, and continue to argue, for a “no-fly zone.” I did not say it would be easy, but I knew we could do it. And I warned that “doing nothing” is a choice — a choice we should not make.
Some people believe that if you ignore a problem, it will go away. This is crazy, immature thinking., like a baby who believes you are gone when you cover your eyes. Or like an ostensible adult who tells himself if he just ignores the cries of a drowning man or a woman being raped, the problem will somehow be resolved.
How many more will be murdered until we open our eyes and our soul? Two hundred thousand? A million? Six million?
How many more people have to be murdered before our “national interest” is affected? How many more have to be massacred before our conscience is affected? Where are our national leaders? Where are our religious and moral leaders?
I know that many Americans, on both the left the right, do not want us to be the “world’s policeman.” They remind us, quite accurately, that we have internal needs. (They forget that most of our internal problems are self-inflicted.)
But if you do not think the world needs a policeman, you have your eyes closed.
This post originally appeared on the Truman National Security Project blog.