The Heartless Blogger

Leon Wieseltier – news alert – thinks I’m a callous bastard:

In the name of “nation-building at home,” we are learning to be unmoved by evil. I will give an example. On Anderson Cooper’s show last week, there appeared a man named Zaidoun Al Zoabi, an academic in Damascus and a prominent anti-Assad activist, who was kidnapped by the Syrian secret police and held in one of Assad’s most notorious prisons. He was pleading for American action to stop Assad’s savagery. “Is the diplomatic path now only about chemical weapons?” Al Zoabi asked, with a look on his face composed in equal measure of dignity and desperation. “What about [Assad’s] massacring us for the past two years?”

At which point Andrew Sullivan, who was a panelist on the show, folded his arms, turned away, and sneered: “Chemical weapons is all you’re going to get right now!” Go back to your disgusting little country and die. The blogger giveth and the blogger taketh away. Is this “war-weariness”? It is certainly a disrespect for suffering.

A couple of points. Zoabi has opposed military intervention by the West for the last two years. Anne-Marie Slaughter noted this on the show:

SLAUGHTER: Last week when we talked you did not support military strikes. You did not think…

ZOABI: I do not support until now.

So how heartless was Zoabi for the last two years? More to the point, a clear majority of Syrians still oppose military intervention by the US. From a recent YouGov poll:

More opponents of the regime strongly disapprove of a U.S. military strike than favor it. 81 percent of government supporters, as well as 56 percent of those who prefer not to say. There’s little evidence that ordinary Syrians favor an attack.

In fact, distrust of America is nearly unanimous among Syrian poll-takers. Only 7 percent of those interviewed thought that the U.S. government was “a friend of the Syrian people.” There wasn’t much disagreement on this point among supporters and opponents of Assad. 79 percent of supporters, 61 percent of opponents and 57 percent of non-aligned said the U.S. was “an enemy of the Syrian people.”

If the Syrian people themselves remain at best ambivalent, is it really solely a mark of “heartlessness” to be skeptical that military intervention would do any good either for the future of Syria or for the current cessation of chemical attacks.  Leon describes what I said with respect to chemical weapons thus:

“Chemical weapons is all you’re going to get right now!”

The transcript reads:

ZOABI: Let me just say one thing. Is the diplomatic path now only about chemical weapons? What about massacring us for the past two years?

SULLIVAN: Chemical weapons right now.

As for my moral callousness – expressed by Wieseltier, putting words into my mouth, as “Go back to your disgusting little country and die!” – here’s a part of the transcript when I was asked directly about the horror of August 21 – and countless other occasions Assad used these vile weapons. I said:

It is absolutely fair and important for us to observe this horrifying thing.

We should. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. I think we should feel it, see it, absorb it, think about it, and face up to it. But statecraft is not about emotional, visceral responses. Statecraft requires someone to see the world as it is but then to make serious judgments about our interests, the future, unintended consequences.

You cannot run foreign policy by emotional spasms. And my fear is that that emotional spasm threw Obama off his essential trajectory of keeping out of this.

These are difficult, tough choices to make in a fallen world. I do not envy the job of the president. Nor do I doubt the sincerity of Wieseltier’s anguish in the face of such horror. If I have at times seemed too indifferent to the suffering in that country in making realist points, I apologize. But I differ in judgment about the right course of action. It seems to me we should be able to acknowledge that, without imputing inhuman callousness.