Daily we read of the horrors being meted out by Assad's regime. Accounts of some of these you may want to spare yourself (like this Channel 4 report on the complicity of Syrian doctors in the torture of hospital patients, for example). Yet the accumulation of atrocities doesn't by itself resolve the issue of what other governments ought to do now. I have already drawn attention on this blog to the divisions of opinion on the question: between those like Matthew Parris and Peter Beaumont who oppose military intervention if it does not have a significant chance of making a difference for the better; and, on the other hand, Philip Collins who feels that a threshold of human suffering has been crossed in Syria demanding that some practical external intervention be undertaken (see here and here). Yesterday's Times reported a one-woman protest (£) - in line with this same impulse - staged by Susan Harcourt outside the Syrian Embassy in London:
'[W]e have a responsibility to protect,' Harcourt added, 'to help those who are helpless to protect themselves'.
"Like the rest of us, I watch the news and think, 'what are we going to do about it?' Do we just do nothing? Do we look back in ten years' time and say we should have done more?
"I wanted just to do something, rather than sitting at home and saying 'Isn't that terrible' before getting on with what I was doing."
Both impulses - feeling that something must be done, and feeling that nothing should be unless it has a good chance of success - are well within the range of what you'd expect in a situation of this extremity and posing the political and military difficulties it does for external intervention.
But what is one to make of the stance of sneering at intervention to forestall a probable massacre when it (that is, intervention) occurs, and mocking the architects of possible intervention in similar circumstances when it (that is, intervention) doesn't occur? Yes, it's Robert Fisk, no other:
Our brave leaders have spent much time telling us how they absolutely, totally and completely refuse to interfere militarily in Syria. And odd, isn't it, how we're almost as keen to publicise our impotence over Syria as we are to threaten Iran over its real or mythical nuclear weapons programme, when Iran isn't massacring anyone at all. The West's R2P – "responsibility to protect" – isn't given out freely, especially if the victims are a little too near the fault-lines of the Middle East to be worthy of our guardianship.
Overlook the masterpiece of logic there about Iran: the feigning of puzzlement over nuclear weapons being the issue rather than massacre - as if the latter were the only possible source of interstate conflict. Just reflect, instead, about the character of a moral sensibility that will invoke 'responsibility to protect' as a taunt when no intervention is contemplated, yet scoff at the prospect of just such an intervention for the protection of civilians, when it happens, and at those undertaking it. Is cynicism the name for this? Or is it just having it all ways so long as you get to chide the people you want to?