America's Self-Righteous Indignation Over Syria at the UN


American officials spared no rhetorical expense in reacting to Saturday's collapse of a UN resolution on Syria. Hillary Clinton was "appalled," and UN Ambassador Susan Rice was "disgusted." Referring to Russia and China, who vetoed the resolution, Rice said, "any further bloodshed that flows will be on their hands."

This seems like a bit much. It's not as if this resolution would have stopped the bloodshed. It would have called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down--something he would have promptly not done. And it's not as if the Russians and Chinese weren't willing to play ball at all. Russia offered amendments that would have turned an ineffectual resolution into a more conspicuously ineffectual resolution, and they were rejected.

And Russia's resistance, anyway, isn't shocking. The Assad regime is an ally of Russia that buys arms from it, and Russia has a naval base in Syria.

Imagine if the U.S. had a naval base in some Arab country and popular unrest threatened the regime, which then set out to suppress the unrest. Oh, wait--you don't have to imagine that; it actually happened last year, in Bahrain. And the US wasted no time in deserting the people in favor of the regime, even as some of those people were being killed or tortured.

Granted, the Syrian regime's brutality far exceeds that of the Bahranian regime, which managed to nip its revolution in the bud. But America has more than once averted its eyes as friendly dictators killed thousands of innocents. For a nation whose support of popular revolts comes and goes depending on which authoritarian regimes we find useful, we're pretty intolerant of this sort of fickleness in other nations.

I would have liked to see this resolution pass. (And I'd love to see Assad actually step down.) And I can see why the administration would like to be seen as making some progress on Syria. That might slow the advance of people who are arguing for military intervention (which would be way, way messier and less predictable than it was in Libya, and would take place in a much more explosive part of the world).

And indeed, as if on cue, the usual suspects responded to the failure of this resolution by arguing that America should arm the Syrian rebels--a development that would no doubt be followed by calls for America to provide air support and, if necessary, boots on the ground.

Then again, those suspects were saying the same thing before the resolution failed, and they would not, in any event, be long appeased by essentially symbolic actions at the UN. As we saw in Iraq, even when the UN does something much more than symbolic--like get a country to admit weapons inspectors who are in the process of discovering that it has no nuclear weapons program--American hawks have a way of persisting and prevailing.

If the failure of this resolution has made it even easier for the hawks, that's bad. But for Clinton and Rice to carry their moral indignation to such high levels is to evince exactly the sort of forgetful American self-righteousness that is one of the hawks' most valuable and enduring resources.

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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