Comrades, we have lost. The only achievement of the Obama administration in the Syrian crisis so far has been to eliminate the humanitarian motive from American foreign policy. We have lost. After Syria, the argument about rescue and responsibility, about the uses of American power, will have to begin again. For Assad’s gassing of children has been a dazzling career move. His most recent, and most brazen, use of chemical weapons has not imperiled him. Quite the contrary. The dead of Ghouta have saved him. The Kerry-Lavrov deal represents an American agreement to deny Assad’s accountability for the atrocity that America’s spokesmen have otherwise been eloquently denouncing. Responsibility, yes; accountability, no. We will hold Assad to account for his arsenal, but not for what he has done with it. Actually, we will hold him to account only for a portion of his arsenal. We have no objection to the weapons that have contributed to the killing of 120,000 people, or with what may still be done with them. As Nicholas Kristof, who has made a brand out of feeling strongly and arguing weakly, observed, we must “persuade Assad that chemical weapons are not worth the cost and that he is better off employing more banal ways to slaughter his people.” He must have seen the Arendt movie.
The Kerry-Lavrov deal is premised on a distinction, an analytical gimmick, that is dear to the president, whose brain is where his heart should be. It is that the question of chemical weapons may be dissociated from the question of mass slaughter. The former demands action, the latter (which the president tidily defines as “somebody else’s civil war”) does not. But this is sophistry. The revulsion against chemical weapons is founded in the revulsion against mass slaughter. The crime—the systematic murder of innocents—is the same. In Syria, sarin and the AK-47 have been different means to one end. It makes no sense to lose sleep over the one and sleep well through the other. The crisis in Syria is not chiefly a crisis of arms control. Obama also argues for his specious distinction on legal grounds, citing the various conventions against chemical weapons; but there also exist conventions against crimes against humanity. Why comply with the former and not comply with the latter?
We know why, of course. Obama, Putin, and Assad each had a problem. Obama’s problem was that Congress was about to humiliate him and his presidency, as a consequence of his bizarre decision to crowd-source his responsibilities as commander-in-chief. Putin’s problem was that American military action was about to damage—and, depending on the American target list, since “we don’t do pinpricks,” help to depose—his only client in the Middle East. Assad’s problem was that the fundamental strategic assumption of his war on his country—that the Americans will not come—was about to be falsified. Then Kerry declaimed a few thoughtless words in London, and the solution to Obama’s, Putin’s, and Assad’s problems was evident. Unfortunately, the solution to Obama’s, Putin’s, and Assad’s problems is not the solution to Syria’s, the Middle East’s, and America’s problems. On the other hand, it suits Iran fine. And when the Kerry-Lavrov plan turns out to be impracticable, and Assad turns out to be lying and stalling, what then? We are being played for fools. Worse, we are willingly being played for fools.
We are also becoming heartless. In the name of “nation-building at home,” we are learning to be unmoved by evil. I will give an example. On Anderson Cooper’s show last week, there appeared a man named Zaidoun Al Zoabi, an academic in Damascus and a prominent anti-Assad activist, who was kidnapped by the Syrian secret police and held in one of Assad’s most notorious prisons. He was pleading for American action to stop Assad’s savagery. “Is the diplomatic path now only about chemical weapons?” Al Zoabi asked, with a look on his face composed in equal measure of dignity and desperation. “What about [Assad’s] massacring us for the past two years?” At which point Andrew Sullivan, who was a panelist on the show, folded his arms, turned away, and sneered: “Chemical weapons is all you’re going to get right now!” Go back to your disgusting little country and die. The blogger giveth and the blogger taketh away. Is this “war-weariness”? It is certainly a disrespect for suffering. Perhaps it is “atrocity fatigue”; but it has been obvious for many decades that the repetition of atrocity dulls conscience instead of stimulating it. “Never again” is ahistorical nonsense. We grow inured to the victims, the way the rich grow inured to the poor. The Syrians, the Libyans, the Egyptians, the Iranians, the politically aspiring peoples of the tyrannized world—they are the global 47 percent, taking, taking, taking. Or they would be, if we were giving. Atrocity fatigue is our fatigue at their atrocity: imagine how atrocity-fatigued they are! The impatience of the fortunate with the unfortunate is not a pretty sight.
Whether or not we intervene in Syria, we must not become an uncompassionate people. But when the president wrenchingly describes the murder of children to the nation and then flinches at the prospect of doing something to stop it, he dulls the moral sensitivities of the nation. Similarly, YouTube will not stand in the way of the new isolationism, which is the bipartisanship of the Obama era. So have no fear. We don’t do pinpricks even. We will, as the secretary general of the United Nations instructed us to do, give peace a chance. There is an issue on which liberals can vote with Senator Paul. The grip of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Rwanda upon the policymaking imagination has been broken. The responsibility to protect is so twentieth century. We will not be the world’s policeman; we will be the world’s superpower bystander. Those who believe that 2013 is 2003 are winning. There is a consensus. If only popular meant just or true.
Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.