Real Clear Politics

In far too much of the world today, conflict consists of the same kind of heroic struggle at arms that Homer depicted 2,800 years ago in the Iliad, modified only by the longer-range lethality of modern weaponry. Such a contest has long been underway in Syria.

Those of us excused by accident of birth from participation in such struggles should take a moment to reflect on our monumental good luck — and on what obligations might flow from it.

U.S. President Barack Obama declared four years ago that preventing genocide and mass atrocities is “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Clearly, he did not see Syria as a test of this commitment. It is equally clear that there is no better illustration than Syria of the validity of both of the president’s claims — whether he still believes them or not.

True, as a result of a deal that spared President Obama the need to make good on his threat of military reprisal for Syrian ruler Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the bulk of those weapons stocks are gone from Syria. That’s no small reassurance considering what the Islamic State group would likely do upon capturing such weapons. Atrocity prevention duly noted and appreciated.

Otherwise, however, we have prevented little in Syria except our own involvement. The administration has largely let the conflict run its course, perhaps in the mistaken belief — perhaps based on faulty intelligence? — that Assad would quickly fall.

Assad did not oblige, however, with now-dire consequences. Some Americans have no doubt been able to harden their hearts at the sight of first thousands of people, then of hundreds of thousands, and now of millions, fleeing for their lives — able to put aside the question of whether the most powerful nation in the world had neglected a moral responsibility to try to do something. But what about the question of national security interest?

The expectation that the problems of Syria would somehow remain confined within its borders now stands exposed as wishful thinking on a par with former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s view in 2005 that the insurgency in Iraq was in its “last throes.” The Islamic State is on the march in Syria and nearby, while Syrians themselves flee for refuge wherever they can find it.

Now, with no end to the conflict in sight, the world faces a multi-generational catastrophe that will cost scores of billions of dollars merely to ameliorate its effects, let alone to resolve. Syria and its consequences will weigh at least as heavily on U.S. presidential administrations to come as Iraq and Afghanistan weighed on this administration. The same goes for our closest partners in Europe. Hopeful inaction can be calamitous, too.

That’s the national security interest implicated in preventing atrocities. When dictators start opening fire on their people, and then gassing them, a reasonable presumption amply confirmed in the Syrian case is that matters are going to get much, much worse. Right action in such a case — indeed, truly heroic action — requires early recognition of the importance of saving lives, which not infrequently entails shouldering some additional risk. Success is by no means assured, but inaction can have still worse consequences.

Alas for Syria, no such heroic recognition of the need to save lives was forthcoming. Without assistance, Syrians are left to try to prevent atrocities — against themselves — on their own as best they can. Now, the action we need is mitigation of their suffering.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has shown such heroic leadership with her politically risky decision to admit 800,000 Syrian refugees and to attempt to coordinate a broader European response. Others leaders have also run risks to step up to the challenge. Let us candidly acknowledge that our enemies in ISIS will certainly try to infiltrate this mass migration and do harm on arrival — and that this fact is no excuse for a failure to help the 99-plus percent who are just seeking a quieter life.

But the biggest heroes of this crisis will be those individuals and organizations willing to step up. The impressive resolve of aid workers with all-too-limited resources to assist those who have fled their homes for refugee camps should serve as inspiration to all people of goodwill.

“We” as a nation had a chance to try to prevent this, and we didn’t take it. Now is the time to make recompense for our failure by doing all we can, as individuals and in little platoons, to help.