Katy Burns: Again? Again?!
It was just a tiny vignette on NBC’s nightly news show last Monday.
Richard Engel, the network’s widely respected chief foreign correspondent, was visiting a Syrian refugee camp where he interviewed a man who’d fled to the camp with his wife and 11 children to “hide from the poison gas.”
But, said Engel, “the most powerful words came from 10-year-old Sidra.” A beautiful child with dark curly hair and big brown eyes looked earnestly at the camera and spoke while Engel translated what he said was her “message for Obama.” It was wrenching in its clarity, its innocence.
“Does he want his kids to be like us? Aren’t we just like them? When we get older, we are going to write ‘Obama didn’t help us.’ ”
Well. Whose heart wouldn’t be moved by such directness? Case closed! Let’s go in, guns blazing!
I am a great admirer of Engel’s bravery and skill in reporting from miserable places under exceedingly dangerous conditions, but this was raw emotional manipulation. It was pro-war propaganda, the shameless use of a child by her parents, a reporter and a network. Maybe Engel needs a break from the appalling, heart-rending front.
And maybe we – all of us – need a break from war. We have seen so much – too much – of it lately. But I’m not sure we’ll get one.
By the time you read this, we may be back in a war. We’re at least flirting with one. Our resolutely anti-war president seems on the verge of taking military action against a nation, Syria, that does not directly threaten us.
Syria’s leader is a thoroughly bad man who has waged merciless war against his own people. Trouble is, many of his opponents in a civil war which has now been going on for two years and has cost thousands of Syrians their lives are, often, equally wretched human beings who likely would also commit atrocities if atrocities furthered their ambitions.
And now someone in Syria has used lethal chemical weapons – something that has been morally unacceptable to the civilized world for decades – against many innocent civilians. Our president has said on more than one occasion that he drew a “red line” against such heinous weapons specifically in Syria.
Well, it seemed like a good idea. One little phrase. It was resolute. And where was the harm? After all, who in his right mind would use lethal chemical weapons in this day and age?
Except that all the evidence so far says that someone did. There are terrible, heart-wrenching pictures and videos to show the horror. Medical reports seem to back them up.
But we don’t know for sure who did it, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s strong case Friday that it was indeed the regime. Yes, Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad is a ruthless man who probably wouldn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons if he were losing. But – importantly – lately he has not been losing. And many of his opponents are equally ruthless. Conventional wisdom is that only he has access to such lethal means and that his opponents do not. But do we, can we know that to a certainty? I suspect not, although we of course are not privy to the administration’s intelligence reports.
And regardless of the identity of the offender or the gravity of the offense, is it really in the best interests of the United States – which arguably should be our greatest consideration – to resort to military action yet again?
Yet, thanks in part to two words – “red line” – and perhaps in larger part to the forces pulling him as leader of the world’s sole remaining superpower to, well, fix it, whatever it is, President Obama is being drawn into involving himself and his country in the ugly Syrian civil war. And this is true even as some of those goading him to act – notably David Cameron, the British prime minister – abruptly change course in the face of overwhelming political opposition.
It is a tragic mess. We don’t know how this will play out. But I am one of many who fear it will not turn out well.
Obama didn’t run as and was not elected to be a war president. On the contrary, he wanted to be the anti-war president.
And he set about unwinding American involvement – in a responsible way – in two long, terrible wars. We are now out of Iraq and will, with luck, soon be quit of Afghanistan as well.
The price of our involvement has been enormous. Trillions of dollars when all the costs are totaled, and the sacrifices by our service men and woman are incalculable. The toll for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan is beyond reckoning.
Those countries are now, despite the vast expenditure of blood and treasure, basically basket cases, fraught with violence and riven by sectarian rivalries and hatreds.
This president until now has rather nimbly managed to sidestep all sorts of traps to keep his country out of new military entanglements. And he was at least trying to turn the focus back to the long-neglected needs of the American people.
Now Obama is faced with the prospect of yet another war – perhaps even without international cooperation or congressional sanction – in another Middle Eastern country where we will likely be viewed, again, as hostile invaders. But if he doesn’t act, some assert, the country’s honor – his honor, his word – is at risk.
George W. Bush never set out to be a war president either. He was to be the peacemaker, the conciliator, the modest president who eschewed foreign nation building to focus on things like education at home and developing stronger ties to countries in our own hemisphere.
Then came the fateful day of Sept. 11, 2001. And we know all too well what happened after that, including the serious intelligence miscalculations – to be charitable – that led us into the quagmire of Iraq. That, you might recall, was to be a short war from which we’d emerge victorious, then come home to concentrate on the problems of Americans.
As history is written well into the future, George W. Bush will be known as a war president.
And his successor, who kept our country from falling into a second Great Depression, saved the American auto industry, began to tackle climate change and extricated us from two interminable foreign wars?
Now Obama may well in the end also be remembered as just another war president.
(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)