02/07/2013 01:25 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2013

Glass Houses in the Middle East

Rescuing Syrian civilians is again a hot topic of discussion among foreign policy elites. In fact, for the nearly two years of the Syrian uprising, the West's concern over Syria has been largely driven by the human toll, specifically the death toll of non-combatants. And well it should: The numbers of civilians killed in Syria is appalling. A recent, credible estimate puts the death toll at 60,000 in the last two years, and even that is likely an undercount. Recently, a surge of refugees into Jordan has raised new alarms. This tragedy prompts news coverage, and calls for U.S. military intervention and a war crimes trial for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The contrast to another war is striking. The U.S. invasion of neighboring Iraq prompted a civil war that took the lives of civilians by the hundreds of thousands. Americans' concern for these besieged civilians was noticeably less generous than it is for the Syrians. There were no charities for the million orphaned children of Iraq. Even the death toll was hotly disputed or ignored, minimized by the news media and politicians as if acknowledging the scale of mortality or probing its causes and consequences would itself be a moral failing. Indifference to human suffering was the rule.

By my count, during 2012 the major news media has documented and discussed the calamity for ordinary Syrians and rebels alike at a rate that is at least four times more frequent compared with coverage of civilian casualties in the Iraq war in 2006, the most violent year. A similar level of focus was the case for the brief war in Gaza last autumn, and the longer, bloodier assault on Gaza in early 2009. During Lebanon's summer war of 2006, when Israeli bombers answered Hezbollah's rockets with 34 days of pounding Shiite neighborhoods in Beirut (among other targets), the news coverage was extensive, largely focusing on the damage to civilians. That month of mayhem produced more than 1,000 fatalities in Lebanon -- which in that same bloody summer in Iraq would have equaled the death toll for perhaps two or three days. Yet the amount of coverage of these two wars, and the nature of discussion, was profoundly different -- sharp, critical attention to the Israeli onslaught in Lebanon, but scarcely any reporting of civilian misery in Iraq.

Why this imbalance in attention? Coverage of the Iraq war trained spotlights on the politics of war making, the intelligence failure, the desultory results of U.S. actions, and the growing intensity of sectarian and ethnic strife. Political and opinion elites constantly honored the sacrifices of the U.S. armed forces. But the attention to the toll on Iraqi civilians -- not just mortality, but displacement and immiseration -- was scant. The people we were there to liberate were at best an afterthought. They still are. And a similar pattern is discernible with respect to Afghanistan.

The difference in our apparent concern for war victims stems from a simple calculus: the United States is only tangentially involved in the Syria conflict. It has lots of fingerprints but no direct role in Israel's shootouts with its neighbors. In Iraq, the United States was the instigator, prosecutor, and occupier. The same is only slightly less true in Afghanistan, where we began in hot pursuit of bin Laden and soon transformed "Operation Enduring Freedom" into occupation and nation building. In this regard, it's worth speculating now about the U.S. drone strikes that by one account have taken the lives of more than 800 civilians in Pakistan since 2004. Yet the principal objection to drone policy has been Obama's stubborn secrecy about the program, the lack of oversight, and indeed the lack of his participation in a public discussion about drones. (His nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, has stated that no civilians were killed by drones as of 2011, an implausible assertion that should disqualify him from high office, yet no one is underscoring this in his confirmation process.) The subject is further complicated by the claim that drone operations save civilian lives, even as that assumes some form of permanent war in the region. The civilian toll is, again, either muddled or relegated to the status of a minor point.

Of course, the scale of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan is several orders of magnitude higher than the drone strikes. And because those ghastly consequences are directly attributable to American actions, the pain of acknowledgment is exceptionally high. Even strategic failure is easier to accept than being responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives lost. We want to avert our eyes, feign indifference, and even blame the victims. Several observers noted last week the number of times during the Hagel confirmation hearings that the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mentioned Afghanistan. It was a total of 24 times (just four by Republican senators) in eight hours of questioning. "In their curious mix of apathy and amnesia concerning America's longest-ever war," wrote analyst Gayle Tzemach Lemmon for Foreign Policy, "senators on both sides reflect the views of the American public."

But Assad is fair game for our fury over his brutal suppression of the rebellion, in which the main victims have been civilians. The Likud government of Israel, applying its overwhelming military power against the desolate population of tiny Gaza, stirs our anger, as can Hamas' firing of rockets into civilian areas. The umbrage taken is authentic. But it's also too easy.

Being exercised by someone else's moral failing when we ignore our own is like doubling down on a dreadful mistake. We could not -- cannot -- come to terms with the human ruins we left in Iraq and Afghanistan, so we urge military action in Syria. The situations are not commensurate and the link between the different wars is more complex than this, of course. Still, the lesson seems clear: the intermittent, if powerful, urge to invade to protect civilians and to engineer democratic values in a snake pit like Syria should be closely examined in the light of our own tragic invasions of the last 12 years. Until we demand accountability and repair from ourselves, we can scarcely demand it of others.

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the Boston Globe on February 6, 2013.