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U.S. Must Act on Syria

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"Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States." - President Barack Obama, Presidential Study Directive on Mass Atrocities

"I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required." - Susan Rice, National Security Advisor, in reference to the Rwandan Genocide

The images and videos making their way out of Syria are devastating. Children who should be asleep snug in their beds swathed in warm blankets, are instead grey and lifeless, wrapped in burial shrouds; men, women, and children coughing, convulsing, and struggling for breath; mourners decrying the inhumanity of a government who brutally, and without compunction, targets its own people.

It is tempting to avoid the graphic photos and heart-wrenching videos, for who wants to bear witness to such senseless and indiscriminate tragedy? But the world needs to see what is happening in Syria. Americans, rightly wary of involvement in yet another Middle East drama, should know that indifference has real, human costs, even if they're played out thousands of miles away.

And the United States, as it has in response to so many tragedies of epic proportions in the past, has struggled to find a voice, a will, the way to respond, as we look on, knowing that every day we fail to act countless more innocent lives are lost.

The U.S. is in a particularly unique position to lead the charge. We are led by a President who issued the first presidential directive elevating the prevention of mass atrocities to a core security interest, whose National Security Advisor vowed to prevent another Rwanda, and whose Ambassador to the United Nations quite literally wrote the book on American cowardice in the face of mass atrocities. We have leadership who have said "not on our watch." So why aren't they doing more?

The White House is reportedly holding senior-level meetings to determine the next course of action. As Samantha Power pointed out in her seminal work on Genocide, "A Problem from Hell" there is a "continuum of intervention" options available to American and foreign policy-makers with which to respond to mass atrocities, not all of which must lead to military intervention. These options range from increased humanitarian aid, to cruise missile strikes, to enacting a no-fly zone. The U.S. can work with willing NATO and Arab League allies to identify the best course of action. The United Nations, especially the Security Council, has proved feckless, and will remain so as long as Russia continues to hamper any meaningful action. The U.S. and likeminded nations should turn to other avenues for action and stop pretending that Russia is anything other than complicit in the crimes being committed.

Syria is not easy. There are ethnic divisions, strategic calculations, financial constraints, and military alliances all contributing to the inertia of the international community. But the people are crying out for help. With estimates that more than 100,000 civilians have perished thus far, the world has already waited too long. And there are real costs to delaying action, with increasing participation by radical Islamists and greater threat to regional stability the longer the conflagration continues.

Unfortunately, the American people are not following the situation in Syria closely and overwhelmingly oppose American involvement in the conflict, though new polls show that reported use of chemical weapons is changing opinions. The administration should have faith in the American people and at least try to make a moral case for some kind of international intervention. Likewise, human rights organizations who have understandably been hesitant to advocate American involvement in a nasty, and increasingly sectarian conflict, must make a better case to their constituencies that there is a humanitarian crisis under way that demands an American response. The American public have shown that when called upon, as after the earthquake in Haiti or during the genocide in Darfur, they will respond with the compassion born out of the American values that we hold so dear.

Maybe the constraints of governing are truly too great to allow the well-intentioned to take decisive actions. But Ambassadors Power and Rice certainly thought otherwise the past. One doesn't have to stretch the imagination to guess what their future selves will say looking back, if the United States stands by and does nothing.