Kristof: Why bombing Syria would be bad


By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times News Service

Columny is often a kind of dodge ball, in which we avoid counterarguments and bluster past contrary views. So, since I’ve obviously offended many readers by supporting missile strikes on Syria if it doesn’t give up chemical weapons, let me try to confront directly your objections.

Our schools are failing. Head Start is being cut back. Our roads and bridges need repairs. And you want to pour billions of dollars into blowing up Syria? What a misuse of resources!

That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq: For the cost of a single soldier in Afghanistan for a year, we could have built 20 schools. But Syria seems different.

A missile strike on Syrian military targets would result in no supplemental budget, so money would come from the existing military pot. In any case, the cost of 100 missiles would be about $70 million — far less than the $1 billion annual rate that we’re now spending on humanitarian aid for Syrians displaced by worsening war and by gas attacks.

If a $70 million strike deters further gas attacks and reduces the ability of President Bashar Assad to bomb civilians, that might actually save us money in humanitarian spending. All this is uncertain, but the bottom line is that the financial cost of a strike isn’t a reason to acquiesce in mass murder in Syria.

So you want to reduce Syrian suffering by bombing Syrians? Seriously?

Syrians worry about U.S. missiles going astray, but they prefer that risk to being endlessly bombed and gassed with impunity by the regime. That’s why it’s Syrians, led by the Syrian government in exile, who are pleading for U.S. airstrikes.

“These people are being bombed every day anyway by their own government,” Amal Hanano, a Syrian-American woman who uses that pseudonym for security reasons, told me in a Skype interview. “People want the Syrian air force destroyed.”

“This is the complete opposite of Iraq,” she added.

I’ve seen that video of a rebel eating a prisoner’s heart. It’s not just Syria’s rulers who are monsters, but also the opposition.

That seems to be a false equivalency. Sure, some of the rebels are vile, but human rights monitors find far more atrocities committed by government forces.

Likewise, al-Qaida-linked Islamist militias have gained strength because they receive funding and weapons from Gulf countries, while, until recently, we provided no arms to moderate rebels.

“If we see an Assad fighter plane overhead and there’s a 50-50 chance we’ll hit it, we don’t strike,” a secular rebel told the independent website Syria Deeply. “We can’t afford the ammunition. The Islamist brigades will take a shot at anything. They have more than enough supplies.”

We get involved in these messes, and we always regret it. Look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam.

Or look at Rwanda: President Bill Clinton says one of his biggest regrets is not getting involved and stopping that genocide in 1994. In that case, Western forces evacuated a dog from the French Embassy, but left behind the Rwandan staff to be slaughtered. That wasn’t “restraint.” That was passivity and myopia, and it was wrong.

Conversely, in Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, Mali, Ivory Coast, there’s general agreement that the West was right to intervene militarily to avert mass atrocities. The point is that either side can cherry pick examples of successes or failures, and there are also some that fall in between. But, overall, I’d say that there are more successful humanitarian interventions than failures.

So Assad presides over the killing of 100,000 people, and we sit on our hands. Then the regime releases sarin, and we bomb? Isn’t the message to tyrants that when you slaughter your citizens, just don’t offend our sensibilities by using gas?

Yes, and that troubles me. We should have stood up to the butchery in Syria earlier — not to mention the killings in Darfur and elsewhere.

That said, chemical weapons are special because they are so indiscriminate, with the Aug. 21 sarin attack perhaps the most lethal evening in the entire Syrian war. And while there is plenty of hypocrisy and inconsistency in the air, it’s better to inconsistently confront one cause of suffering than to consistently acquiesce in them all.

Get a life! You’re a broken record on Syria, and no one agrees with you.

I’m passionate on this because there’s a crucial principle at stake about the need to stand up to genocide or mass atrocities where it is feasible.

I understand that Syria is a hard case, with uncertain consequences. But if we are broadly retreating from the principle of humanitarian intervention to avert mass atrocities because of compassion fatigue in a tumultuous and ungrateful world, then we’re landing on the wrong side of history, and some day we will look back in shame.

 

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