Onward to ... drift! Or: On waging war by committee

The young bodies wrapped in white linen winding sheets. Dozens of them. No blood, no sweat, no tears. Not a mark on them. Completely unmarred, just as God made them. Still lifes. The expression on their young faces almost angelic. Not at all like the jumbled masses of naked victims piled high in the Nazi death camps, their expressions still those of (barely) recognizable human beings writhing in agony, still clinging to each other, the men, women and children. They were told they were being taken for showers. But not these latest victims of modern, oh-so-antiseptic science. These bodies have everything. Except life.

It is a sad and shocking sight. If the world were paying any attention instead of just uttering the usual pious platitudes, or in the case of the distinguished Russia and Chinese diplomats at the United Nations, wondering in all their usual innocence who could have done this. As if they -- and the rest of an uncaring world -- were not accomplices, either active or passive, to what has been happening in one more vivisected country.

Who says the 20th century is past? Its worst features are still very much with us in the 21st. Sad as the sight of these bodies may be, sadder still is the world's apathy in the face of evil, wrapped as usual in the empty rhetoric of "statesmen."

Saddest of all is the sight, and unending sound, of all these Deep Thinkers still proclaiming that this is none of our business. Congress seems full of politicians so consumed by their own partisan prejudices that they aren't prepared to do anything a president from the other party requests.

We've seen, and heard, all this before. Back in the years after September 11, 2001, the kneejerk critics of George W. Bush, still bitter after an election campaign that finally, finally had to be ended by nothing short of a Supreme Court decision, rattled on for years about how all this had really been his fault. Never mind that bunch called al-Qaida or its enablers throughout the Islamic world. Somehow they were all reduced to just incidental bystanders.

Now it's Barack Obama who tries to rally the country to actually do something about the continuing horror in Syria (at last!), even if it's something only minimal, even if it's only a few missiles dispatched as a gesture, and he finds that, for a lot of Americans, politics doesn't end at the water's edge after all. And that war, to parody Clausewitz, is only a continuation of partisan politics by other means.

The spirit of American isolationism is not only still with us but enjoying a dangerous resurgence. Once upon a time it was the Lindberghs and even the Robert A. Tafts who were so consumed by their antipathy to That Man, aka Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal, that they fought every effort to bolster the Allied cause, and that of human decency, during the fateful 1930s. Whether it was Lend-Lease abroad or an almost too late national draft at home -- just a year before Pearl Harbor -- they were agin it.

The isolationists in Congress extended clear across the political spectrum -- from right to left, from the Tafts to the LaFollettes. And their counsel could not have been more simple -- or more wrong. If we just ignored what was happening in the world, surely it would all go away. It didn't. It never does.

Now, in place of the Tafts we get the Rand Pauls in the Senate. It is not an improvement. Our president himself made full use of the old isolationist appeal when he was only a senator, and it has taken him years to finally come around to doing something about the unending bloodbath in Syria -- and the danger it represents far beyond Syria. Even something minimal.

Now he assures us there will be no wider war, no "boots on the ground," no complications at all if we go to war. At least that is what his spokesmen tell wavering members of Congress. As if war could be waged guaranteed risk-free. As if the dogs of war, once unleashed, are as easily controlled as John Kerry, our new but somehow all too familiar secretary of state, keeps assuring Congress.

Granted, the current president of the United States and commander-in-chief of its armed forces is anything but a commanding figure. A former secretary of defense once observed that you go to war with the army you have -- as if he himself had not played a sad role in its not being sufficiently prepared for war. In this case, you go to war with the president you have, and the country has only one of those at a time. Whatever one thinks of this president's politics, there are more important things to consider just now, like the fate of the country and the world. And simple humanity.

. . .

Meanwhile, the usual ditherers in Congress, at the United Nations, and in the serried ranks of the country's certified punditry, counsel: Do nothing. Much like the isolationists of old. The new ones don't seem to have learned a thing.

C.S. Lewis said it: "The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice." And the only thing necessary to assure the triumph of that evil, as Edmund Burke warned long ago, is that good men do nothing.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

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