Last Thursday, our beloved family dog, Katie, died at the age of 12. She was a gentle giant who respectfully deferred even to any mite-size puppy with a prior claim to a bone. Katie might have won the Nobel Peace Prize if not for her weakness for squirrels.
I mourned Katie’s passing on social media and received a torrent of touching condolences, easing my ache at the loss of a member of the family. Yet on the same day that Katie died, I published a column calling for greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far. That column led to a different torrent of comments, many laced with a harsh indifference: Why should we help them?
These mingled on my Twitter feed: heartfelt sympathy for an American dog who expired of old age, and what felt to me like callousness toward millions of Syrian children facing starvation or bombing. If only, I thought, we valued kids in Aleppo as much as we did our terriers!
For five years the world has been largely paralyzed as President Bashar Assad has massacred his people, nurturing in turn the rise of ISIS and what the U.S. government calls genocide by ISIS. That’s why I argued in my column a week ago that President Barack Obama’s passivity on Syria was his worst mistake, a shadow over his legacy.
The column sparked passionate disagreement from readers, so let me engage your arguments.
“There is nothing in our constitution that says we are to be the savior of the world from all the crazies out there,” a reader in St. Louis noted. “I cannot see any good in wasting a trillion dollars trying to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Bleeding hearts often cause more harm than good.”
I agree that we can’t solve all the world’s problems, but it doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t try to solve any. Would it have been wrong during the Holocaust to try to bomb the gas chambers at Auschwitz? Was President Bill Clinton wrong to intervene in Kosovo to avert potential genocide there? For that matter, was Obama wrong two years ago when he ordered airstrikes near Mount Sinjar on the Iraq-Syria border, apparently averting genocidal massacres of Yazidi there?
Agreed, we shouldn’t dispatch ground forces to Syria or invest a trillion dollars. But why not, as many suggest, fire missiles from outside Syria to crater military runways and ground the Syrian air force?
A reader from Delaware commented, “I hear ya, Nicholas, but so far every Middle East venture has not turned out good for the world.” Likewise, a reader in Minnesota argued, “Surely the George W. Bush experience taught us something.”
Let me push back. I opposed the Iraq War, but to me the public seems to have absorbed the wrong lesson – that military intervention never works, rather than the more complex lesson that it is a blunt and expensive tool with a very mixed record.
Yes, the Iraq War was a disaster, but the no-fly zone in northern Iraq after the first gulf war was a huge success. Vietnam was a monumental catastrophe, but the British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 was a spectacular success. Afghanistan remains a mess, but airstrikes helped end genocide in the Balkans. U.S. support for Saudi bombing in Yemen is counterproductive, but Bill Clinton has said that his worst foreign policy mistake was not halting the Rwandan genocide.
And even if we eschew the military toolbox, what excuse do we have for not trying harder to give Syrian refugee children an education in neighboring countries like Jordan and Lebanon? Depriving refugee kids of an education lays the groundwork for further tribalism, poverty, enmity and violence.
I grant that cratering runways or establishing a safe zone – even educating refugees – won’t necessarily work as hoped, and Obama is right to be concerned about slippery slopes. Those concerns must be weighed against the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly now that we have asserted that genocide is underway in Syria.
One reason past genocides have been allowed to unfold without outside interference is that there is never a perfect policy tool available to stop the killing. Another is that the victims don’t seem “like us.” They’re Jews or blacks or, in this case, Syrians, so we tune out.
But, in fact, as even dogs know, a human is a human.
I wonder what would happen if Aleppo were full of golden retrievers, if we could see barrel bombs maiming helpless, innocent puppies. Would we still harden our hearts and “otherize” the victims? Would we still say “it’s an Arab problem; let the Arabs solve it”?
Yes, solutions in Syria are hard and uncertain. But I think even Katie in her gentle wisdom would have agreed that not only do all human lives have value, but also that a human’s life is worth every bit as much as a golden retriever’s.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.