Richard Cohen laments the absence of moral outrage among “liberals” about the horrible things going on in Syria:
The inescapable truth is that the world needs a policeman. The inescapable truth is that only the United States 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.
Yes, he’s wrong and in more than one way. The few remaining liberals are white-haired and feeble, in their final years. Hubert Humphrey has been dead for 35 years. Their successors, calling themselves “progressives”, are not about morality but about gain, about securing advantage.
The protests of the Aughts were not anti-war. They were anti-Bush. Now that George W. Bush is gone and there’s a Democrat in the White House, there’s nothing to protest, even when he does very much the same things that his Republican predecessor did. I’m reminded of William F. Buckley’s half-hearted defense of Richard Nixon’s obviously wrong-headed wage and price controls: “Well, at least he imposed them reluctantly.”
The president also is under the handicaps that he’s making an incoherent argument in a particularly passionless way. It is incoherent to argue for immediacy but be willing to delay action, first for Congressional deliberations, then for diplomatic negotiations. It is incoherent to argue for the moral necessity of “unbelievably small” actions.
What is it about chemical weapons? It is that they are technological, impersonal, indiscriminate, and used from afar. So are drone strikes. We may not see it that way but most of the world does. It is incoherent to argue that killing children and other civilians with chemical weapons is immoral while killing children and other civilians with drone strikes is moral. The decision isn’t a moral one; it’s a pragmatic one. And the pragmatic decision when there is no acceptable strategy for producing the outcome you wish, as is the case in Syria, is to do nothing.
It is an imperfect world and no one in it is morally pure. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.