What We Can Do About Syria

By James A. Kidney

Maybe we should adopt an institution from the old Soviet Union and have gulags for bureaucrats from failed administrations who keep telling a better president what to do.

No, not really. The First Amendment is supposed to be bothersome. Else your correspondent might be in some gulag, too, some day.

This wry musing about punishment for repeated bad proposals is prompted by a column in the WAPO on September 4, 2015 by Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush. As one might expect from a speech writer, Gerson’s writing style is unobjectionable, but his ideas come right from the Dick Cheney playbook. In the subject column, he is lamenting once again that President Obama is doing nothing, nothing I tell you, to relieve the suffering of the Syrians.

That picture of the Turk carrying a three-year-old boy on the beach prompts Gerson’s musings. The boy drowned as his parents struggled to reach Turkey.

Reuters Photo
Reuters Photo

Every decent soul must be touched by the picture. The little boy is mostly obscured by the Turkish rescue worker because the picture is taken at a 45 degree angle from the rear. But the obscuring of his face makes the victim of the drowning more universal. His thin little body, tiny legs shod in Velcro lace sneakers, are those of every little boy or girl. It could be a picture of your little boy or girl. It is wrenching.

Imagine that boy waking up earlier that day at the urging of his parent, totally innocent of the reasons for the ugly violence around him, smiling at his Mom or Dad. Maybe he is laughing. He does what his parents tell him, fearful though he must have been of entering into a small inflatable boat headed into a wide sea. The boat deflates. As it loses air, the boy’s hand slides from his father’s. He and his mother and sibling slide into the sea. Panic.  Screaming for Mom and Dad.  Why is he abandoned? He cannot breath. He drowns. All promise gone. His mourners are the waves pushing his tiny body to shore.  Was his a pointless birth? Such questions must be answered by some higher power. We are sure, however, that he was a gift to the earth for his three years upon it.  How could he not be?

And what is Gerson’s reaction? Violence. His column mostly just chastises Obama for doing nothing – an easy shot in the face of sad pictures of refugees. Like nearly all Republicans and many Democrats, Gerson proposes war while belittling its consequences. Here is his chief suggestion and criticism:

“At many points during the past four years, even relatively small actions might have reduced the pace of civilian casualties in Syria.  How hard would it have been to destroy the helicopters dropping barrel bombs on neighborhoods? A number of options well short of major intervention might have reduced the regime’s destructive power and/or strengthened the capabilities of more responsible forces. None were undertaken.”

Note the easy way in which Gerson recommends a violent response. “How hard would it have been” to bomb helicopters (and people) in the middle of Syria, he asks, never reckoning that dictator Bashir would find other ways to drop those bombs, leading to escalation and perhaps all-out war with the United States as “relatively small actions” escalate because lesser ones are unsuccessful. How many lives of Americans and our “enemies” must be lost before politicians learn that violence begets violence and that warfare is utterly unpredictable?

We are not pacifists on this website by any means. ISIS and Bashir are evil and may warrant a military response from the United States. But we know that our goals in the Middle East are not easily met or even clearly defined. We know that the greater the U.S. participation in the sectarian battles in these remote desert lands, the greater the growth of anti-U.S. jihadists. If the last 12 years since invading Iraq have taught us anything, it should be that nothing is easy in the region. To answer Gerson: “How hard would it have been?” Who knows, but it would not be easy, would not be sufficient, and it would be yet another heartbreak for a President to write to a parent or spouse to explain why it was that an American — perhaps one who himself once had thin legs ending in Velcro shoes — had to die in a far off land for a cause that few actually care about and for which the United States was not committing its full resources.

Here is another option for Gerson and others if they are angry and want to use the death of the little boy in the waters off of a Turkish beach to good effect: Urge the President and Congress to appropriate substantial funds to responsible non-government organizations and use any surpluses of food in our agriculturally abundant country to help the Syrian refugees and their reluctant European hosts to deal with the thousands fleeing these troubled lands. Our government also could provide U.S. Navy vessels, made of sturdy steel almost impossible for nature to sink, equipped with galleys and heads and perhaps stocked with games for three-year-old boys to play to keep their minds off the dreadful upheavals in their lives. In other words, we could take steps to keep little boys and girls safe and alive.

How hard would that be?

1 thought on “What We Can Do About Syria”

  1. Very thoughtful, Jim. I’m glad that you are writing these. Syria is a tough situation. I think we probably should be doing more, and your recommendations are a good start. Marc

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