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posted: 9/11/2013 5:00 AM

Where's the moral outrage?

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Generals fight the last war. Liberals protest them. The statements of groups on the left regarding Syria are redolent with references to Iraq, Afghanistan and, of course, Vietnam. Not mentioned is the first Gulf War, which promptly ended by diktat of George H.W. Bush, or more to the point Kosovo or Bosnia, two military actions that did what they set out to do. The killing stopped.

What perplexes me is how the calls for Congress to rebuff President Obama are empty of moral outrage. The civil war in Syria has cost more than 110,000 lives. It has produced a humanitarian calamity -- well over 2 million refugees. Bashar al-Assad has massacred his own people by conventional means and is accused of using poison gas several times, most recently on Aug. 21, when his military murdered 1,429 people, including more than 400 children.

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What do The Nation, liberalism's longtime journal, and others on the left propose to do about all this? Go to the international community. Where is this entity? I suppose it is the United Nations, where not a peep of outrage has come from Russia or China. Both have stymied any attempt to rein in the Assad regime. In 2011, the two even vetoed a Security Council resolution that threatened mere sanctions if Syria didn't stop killing its own people. Syria took heart and stepped up the killing. Shall we wait and take moral instruction from the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping? Putin, having become an accessory before the fact, may now bring pressure on Syria -- a consequence of Obama's threat to use force. The president may finally have gotten Putin's attention.

I pick on the American left because it is liberal and because that suggests empathy, concern and internationalism. The American right is now going through one of its periodic bouts of lunacy, reverting to a comfy isolationism-cum-selfishness that has often characterized it. (I should note, though, that back in the late 1930s, Norman Thomas, the six-time socialist presidential candidate, supported the isolationist America First movement.) Still, I look to liberals to make common cause with the underprivileged, the unfortunate and the weak. If that doesn't describe the people of Syria, then what does? Can the U.S. help them? We certainly could have. We certainly didn't.

Look at what happened at the end of August. Three or so days before the atrocity, U.S. intelligence agencies were getting wind of an imminent gas attack. Did Washington warn Damascus to stop? We don't know. But we do know that if it did, it probably would have been dismissed. After all, the Syrians had used gas before. A year earlier, Obama had declared the use of gas a "red line," and then did nothing about it. He said he was going to send the rebels small arms and such. I guess he did not use Amazon, because most of the stuff was very slow in arriving. All in all, the president did nothing. This cannot be said of Assad. He just kept on murdering.

Last month's chemical weapons attack is reminiscent of the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica in which about 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. This happened in Europe, 50 years after the Holocaust. This happened with plenty of advance warning, after numerous previous atrocities and with a supine Dutch U.N. contingent nearby. Srebrenica was what the former U.N. official Diego E. Arria calls "slow-motion genocide." It happened because NATO had already shown that it would allow it to happen.

Something similar happened with the Syrian gas attack. More than 400 children died because the world had already shown it would do nothing about Syrian war crimes. We were told that this was not our problem. We cannot be the world's policeman. There are no good guys in this conflict and, anyway, what with a Pentagon budget of $525.4 billion our forces are stretched too thin and we're somehow out of money. So in Washington or Langley or someplace, we watched as poison gas was being readied and commands were being issued. We could have made a difference. We could have at least tried. We should all be ashamed.

The inescapable truth is that the world needs a policeman. The inescapable truth is that only the U.S. can play cop. We have the wherewithal. A further inescapable truth is that evil exists and needs to be fought. We should always proceed cautiously and prudently, aware of mission creep, complexity and our own limitations. I have always thought, maybe naively, that these were values embedded in the very soul of American liberalism. It seems I am wrong.

Someone should have told the children.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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