WASHINGTON — History is like a teacher, except armed with truncheons and guns. So what are its recent lessons?
In the early 1990s, Ukraine briefly possessed the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, including about 1,900 strategic weapons, an inheritance from the Soviet crackup. In exchange for security assurances — specifically, a Russian promise to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” — the Ukrainian government turned over all its nuclear weapons to Russia in 1996. The Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is now a muddy scrap of paper stuck to Vladimir Putin’s boot. According to a Ukrainian legislator, there is now a “strong sentiment” in what remains of his country that this denuclearization was “a big mistake.”
On Aug. 21, 2013, the Syrian regime fired rockets and artillery shells filled with sarin nerve gas at rebel-held neighborhoods in Ghouta, killing nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children. This set off a series of negotiations in which Bashar Assad, mediated by his Russian sponsor, exchanged (all of? much of?) his stockpiles to improve his hold on power. “The prospects are right now that (Assad) is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been,” National Intelligence Director James Clapper testified recently.
To summarize, Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons and regrets it. The Syrian regime used chemical weapons and benefited. As nations meet in The Hague for a nuclear security summit, here is a recent lesson — lesson No. 1 — on weapons of mass destruction: Get them. Keep them. Or use them to gain leverage.
Which leads to lesson No. 2: In our wired, connected, thoroughly videographed world, exposure does not mean attention or sympathy. In the case of Syria — now in its fourth year of conflict — it has been possible to follow the progression of mass atrocities on hundreds of YouTube videos. But reaction in America and the West has seldom risen even to the level of numbness, which requires giving a damn in the first place.
There are now well north of 100,000 Syrian dead, including more than 10,000 children. In the besieged areas, some people have been reduced to eating grass, cats and dogs (as I was told during several interviews with recent refugees). Government-allied militias engage in kidnapping, extortion and murder. In the run-up to the latest round of Geneva talks, the regime used barrel bombs (terror weapons designed to kill civilians and flatten neighborhoods) to strengthen its military and negotiating positions — war crimes to prepare for peace talks. And the strategy has largely worked. One can follow the systemic destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo in satellite pictures. The images both reveal and miniaturize. Look at that neighborhood destroyed. Isn’t technology cool?
There has been a facile assumption that the international community, in the pre-digital past, sometimes failed to act during mass atrocities because they lacked information. The war in Syria — the most transparent campaign of mass atrocities in history — proves that excuse a joke. In this case, we were watching all along.
Which raises lesson No. 3: Historical lessons are easily overlearned. Following Iraq, Afghanistan and the complicated exertions of the war against terror, politicians (in both parties), pundits (across the spectrum) and voters called for a chastened, passive foreign policy and a focus on domestic concerns.
They have generally gotten what they wanted from the Obama administration, at least in Syria. The outcome was a consistent failure to support more responsible forces when support might have mattered; the descent of Syria into a Somalia-like state at the heart of the Middle East; the ceding of regional leadership to determined enemies and unreliable friends; and the tolerance of crimes against humanity in the name of realism.
But exhaustion and indifference are not the same thing as realism. In this case, the very real outcome is growing regional instability, the use of Syria as a training ground for perhaps 10,000 jihadists (many of whom will, eventually, go elsewhere), and the loss of much of a generation of Syrian children to despair, sectarianism and a desire for revenge.
There are limits to American power, which must be factored into policy choices. But a predisposition to passivity has costs — to American interests, to nervous friends and allies, and to the victims of ongoing atrocities. And these should be factored in as well.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.