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Nicholas Kristof Plays the Emotional Heartstrings on Syria

By on 8.29.13 | 3:54PM

The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof is adding his voice to the chorus of liberal internationalists and neoconservatives demanding action in Syria. In his latest column, Kristof, as he often does, appeals to emotion with a heartstring-strumming anecdote:

[W]hen I was last in Syria, in November, I met a grandma who had already lost her husband, her son and her daughter-in-law to the Assad regime. She was living in her fifth home that year, a leaky tent, wondering who would die next, and like everyone was desperate for international support. “We ask for God’s help in ending this, and Obama’s,” she said.

What do we tell her? That we don’t have the stomach to help her? That we’d rather wait until all her grandkids have died and the death toll has reached hundreds of thousands and embarrassed us to take firmer action?

Of course there is genuine and horrific suffering in Syria being perpetrated by Bashar al-Assad's regime. But Kristof's emotional warfare only gets him so far in the service of actual warfare. Were he to return to Syria today, he could just as easily meet a Christian woman praying for a regime victory so her country didn't descend into chaos. Or the mother of a 14-year-old executed by rebels for allegedly making a joke about the Prophet Mohammed. Or the Alawite brothers, profiled by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, who took up arms for Assad after two of their family members were executed by rebels solely because of their religious background. Those who try to shoehorn the Syrian civil war into a dichotomy of "evil force X attacks helpless group Y" are oversimplifying what's going on.

Kristof does admit that "Syria is going to be a mess, whatever we do," but that intervening would "reinforce the international norm against weapons of mass destruction." Syria isn't a signatory to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, which forces Kristof to speak of norms rather than laws. But regardless, if we want to send a message about the usage of WMDs, shouldn't we be concerned, as Ben Stein is, that a rebel victory in Syria will put chemical weapons in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria and likely the most powerful rebel faction? Militant Islamists running around with sarin gas rockets is one of the worst scenarios imaginable in the Middle East. Yet if the Assad regime crumbles, it's certainly a possible outcome, and one that would be tough to guard against.

Fortunately, President Obama always has his priorities in order:

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity "just muscular enough not to get mocked" but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia. (Emphasis added.)

Some military commanders read Sun Tzu. Others admire von Clausewitz. Our president has apparently gleaned his war wisdom from an elementary school pamphlet on how not to get bullied.

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