Remember Rwanda's 1994 genocide, which killed a million people - an event still reverberating across Africa? Remember the anguished hand-wringing over how to respond, which ended only when the slaughter became too outrageous to ignore? Remember the earnest vow that such an enormity could not be allowed to happen again?
And when it did the following year in Bosnia, remember the anguished hand-wringing over what to do about ethnic cleansing and the Serbian snipers of Sarajevo using civilians for target practice? After the massacre at Srebrenica, didn't we tell ourselves these sorts of atrocities should be prevented?
Well, here we are again. This time, the victims are residents of Baba Amr, a ramshackle suburb of the western Syrian city of Homs. The wider target is any Syrian who thinks the bloody-handed Assad family must go. A minimum of 5,000 people have died - equal to those slain at Srebrenica. The actual figure is impossible to determine, since the Syrian government is moving heaven and earth to keep its butchery out of the public eye.
What is our response? Anguished hand-wringing and severe scolding. Exhortations by our secretary of state that the Syrian military should depose its commander-in-chief. In a word, weakness. Contrast this with our response to a similar situation in Libya a year ago and uncomfortable questions rise. Does our lack of action spring from election-year politics? Or from the fact that while Libya has ample oil reserves, Syria has none? Remember, that was the analysis when George Bush was in office ...
Unfortunately both for us and for the Syrian people, our impotence seems to originate not in malicious calculation, but from incompetence. The Syrian horror, like the risings in Libya and Yemen, are manifestations of the great unrest we hopefully styled the "Arab Spring." It was as inevitable as day following night, and our inability either to predict or to plan a response to it speaks volumes about this administration's attitude about foreign relations.
Why was the administration surprised by the Syrian government's attacks on civilians? This February marks the 30th anniversary of the eradication of the Syrian city of Hama by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father. Following a similar but smaller outbreak of unrest, the elder Assad surrounded Hama, a known hotbed of agitation, with artillery and bombarded it for a week. Afterward, he sent in elite troops to murder the survivors. The old city was razed and literally paved over: for decades, New Hama sported the Middle East's largest parking lot. This is a regime that will kill as many people as necessary to retain power. Not to recognize this and plan accordingly is deadly.
Why was the administration surprised that Russia and China would forestall action by the UN? Assad is only doing what these two have done, and on a larger scale; international action on Syria would send a very disquieting message to their populations about limits on a state's power to commit murder to maintain order. Moreover, Russia is a longtime political ally and military supplier to the Assad regime. We should have anticipated this, but apparently we believed that the interests of Russia and China echoed our own, or that talk would trump gunfire and iron-fisted oppression - another deadly misjudgment.
And why do we not recognize the opportunity Syria offers us to solve the problem of Iran? The Middle East knows that Damascus and Tehran are allies, and that Syria is Iran's entrepôt into the Arab world, its conduit for mischief with its creatures Hamas and Hezbollah. If Assad falls as a result of popular protest, what message will that send to the long-suffering people of Iran - and to Tehran's theocracy? We stood aside with nary a peep in 2011 while religious gangsters beat the Iranian people back into submission; here's a chance to make amends for that error, and advance our country's interests in the region.
Is there danger in taking sides in Syria? Yes. The Syrian opposition undoubtedly contains Islamist elements, exactly as it did in Libya and Egypt; concern over a possible Islamist takeover is a major reason large ethnic groups in Syria continue to support the government. We too, should realize that such a new government may not be very friendly to us. But should this concern paralyze us, when there are many positive geopolitical results to be reaped from forthright, immediate action in concert with, for example, the Gulf Cooperation Council and Turkey? Call it "addressing humanitarian concerns," if that sounds better.
Or, we can continue to wring our hands in anguish and chastise Bashar Assad's blood-spattered thugs. And when the Syrian opposition has been ground to dust, vow that this sort of thing will never happen again. I'm sure the dead of Baba Amr will appreciate the sentiment.
Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.