Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who died in August, wrote that in war there is “no such thing as innocent bystanding,” and he was all too right about that. Those who do nothing to end the slaughter are as complicit as those who brandish their weapons. One might watch and wait for years “balanced between destiny and dread,” Heaney wrote. But there comes a time when there is nowhere to hide from the shared responsibility of humanity.
When President Barack Obama met with the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations at the G20 summit in Russia last week, seeking support for military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, he found himself surrounded by a mob of bystanders, a coalition of the unwilling, as it were, and rarely has an American head of state looked so lonely.
What Obama has found with his attempts to respect the nuances of his allies’ concerns, is that, given a chance to choose between competing evils most people prefer to climb on the fence.
Obama got 10 other nations to sign onto a letter calling for “a strong international response” to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. But most stopped far short of endorsing the planned air strikes. Only French President François Hollande appears to be entirely on board. The French and the Americans, “know that this is not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter," Secretary of State John Kerry declared Saturday during a visit to Paris. But Hollande, like Obama, faces growing opposition at home. The rest of Washington’s old allies essentially are content to let the United States go into action without them.
By comparison, the bitter debate before the 2003 Iraq invasion looks almost positive. At least people took clear positions. The George W. Bush administration would allow no middle ground. You are either with us, it said, or you are with the terrorists. Some old friends like—well, like France, ironically—tried bravely to stop what they figured was a pointless and potentially disastrous war. American congressmen itching for a fight declared they would no longer eat French fries, only “freedom fries.” Other countries, like Britain, charged into combat alongside the Americans. Almost 50 nations signed on to the so-called “coalition of the willing” and leant at least some small degree of support. Of those, only 10 are on record now backing the proposed American action against Syria. Britain is not among them. Only the French are likely to go into combat.
What Obama has found with his attempts to respect the nuances of his allies’ concerns, is that, given a chance to choose between competing evils most people prefer to climb on the fence. The air war being planned against Syria might push Assad toward negotiations, or it might worsen the already horrific situation on the ground. Inaction, on the other hand, gives the Syrian tyrant carte blanche to use weapons of mass destruction that will annihilate his enemies while driving millions more innocents out of their homes and off their lands. He might just save his regime, even if he rules little more than a wasteland filled with corpses.
One might wish that another option presented itself: an arousal of public outrage against the proposed American action and against the atrocities committed by the Assad regime that could effectively prevent the first and end the second. That is essentially what Pope Francis called for on Saturday when he told a peace vigil in Rome: that violence and war come when man “withdraws into his own selfishness.” The most moral position is to say you are with peace and against all war. But that is different from apathy, which is what most of the world—and much of the American public—appear to feel at this moment. As Heaney knew, there is nothing moral about that; when war comes, as it has and as it will, there is “no such thing as innocent."
With Miranda Green in Washington.