Let's say you're Barack Obama. You are the leader of the most powerful nation on earth and, at least for the time being, the only real superpower.
Your countrymen, who have never been very interested in foreign affairs much less foreign wars, are tired of our long involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet, a new batch of human suffering now afflicts Syria, where enemies of the United States are facing off against different enemies of the United States with innocent civilians caught in the middle.
Now the latest atrocity could involve chemical weapons. If the Syrian government really has used these weapons, then the stakes have just been upped by quite a bit. Regardless of who might win this civil war, don't you need to do something powerful to stop chemical warfare from creeping back into general use?
An op-ed in last Sunday's New York Times by a foreign policy expert argues that the answer to that question is no. Edward Luttwak, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the best result for U.S. interests would be a continued draw. He goes so far as to suggest that the U.S. should arm any side that isn't winning in order to prolong the conflict. The basic morality of that suggestion aside, do we really want to be seen as the country that promotes endless armed conflict?
I can't blame Americans for being tired of sending our soldiers and our money to intervene in far-off conflicts. It doesn't help that the wars in Vietnam and Iraq were sold at least in part on lies, and that the war in Afghanistan, while a response to a direct attack on the United States, has proven costly, murky and almost impossible to get out of.
Which brings us to the United Nations. The U.N. should be the answer to the Syria dilemma. But American conservatives have long attacked the UN and done everything they can to undermine it. But without a strong international peace-making and -keeping organization, the moral weight of civilian suffering rests with the world's most powerful nation --- us. If we fail to act, no other single nation has the wherewithal to stop the killing.
Someone, probably the president, needs to start making the argument that it is in the best interests of America to have a stronger U.N. Without it we can pay more with our wallets to intervene in places like Syria or we pay an even higher price with our consciences if we don't.