The latest pictures from the Syrian civil war are especially ugly. More than a thousand civilians in the outskirts of the capital dead from what appears to be poison gas.
Uncivilized? More so than the bombardment of civilians that has been going on for a couple of years, with total deaths likely to be more than one hundred thousand and millions dislocated to refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and moving around within Syria?
Who is responsible for this latest atrocity?
Various opposition groups accuse the Syrian army. Syrian officials accuse the rebels of committing the deed in order to enlist foreign support.
And Syrian officials have now joined the song coming from Ankara, claiming that Israel is a major source of the trouble created by outsiders in their otherwise decent society.
Skeptics are asking why the Syrian army would use such weapons when UN technicians are already close by, supposedly monitoring the use of chemical weapons.
Warfare has a long history of disinformation meant to garner outside support for one side or another. Remember the Rape of Belgium, a slogan produced by the British to increase international support for its side in World War I.
Russian and Chinese vetoes in the Security Council have prevented serious intervention under the banner of the United Nations.
President Obama has spoken out forcefully and morally, about crossing America's red lines. Not for the first time, and again this time with cautions about the need to investigate what really has happened.
Civil wars may be uglier than others. They represent, first of all, destruction of politics and law to decide on things and keep order. The American civil war was no more antiseptic than others. Sherman's March to the Sea was meant to end the South's willingness as well as its capacity to fight. The destruction of the southern economy was largely responsible for the surge of banditry that lasted for decades, and provided all those books and movies about the Wild West.
What should outsiders do about this civil war?
Perhaps what the British and Europeans did about the American Civil War.
This one is even dicier than that one.
Syria's multiple ethnic and religious components are well on their way to seeking their own safety and fortunes along the similar paths as followed in Lebanon on one side and Iraq on the other. Those countries were always too heterogeneous for truly civilized democracy,
Turkey is better held together, but is anything but a homogeneous society with a high level of patriotism spread throughout its ethnic and religious minorities.
The ethnic and religious tensions within those societies are not like those of the US, Canada, Israel, and a few other places, where populations immigrated for the sake of improving themselves, and have been absorbed willingly into countries made stronger by their diversities.
The social components of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq were brought together without concern for dealing with their differences, disputes, fears, and hatreds other than by central force as in the cases of Saddam's Iraq and the Assads' Syria, or by leaving them alone in their enclaves with a weak central authority as in the case of Lebanon.
One must look hard to find justice in someone else's civil war.
The issue of slavery might have helped the British stay out of the American fight on the side of the South, but other issues were just as persuasive. The fighting was a land action involving large armies, and the British strength was at sea.
Barack Obama is quick with words of condemnation and care about chemical weapons in Syria, but he is well aware of the limited success of the US under his predecessor in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is not inclined for another effort likely to end badly.
Now one of the factions in the opposition to Assad that calls itself moderate is saying it will go over to the side of the Jihadists if the United States, Europe, and Israel have nothing more to offer them than Obama's words.
Israelis are hunkering down for whatever happens, making sure that the population has gas masks and atropine, as well as upgrading its alerts and defensive measures in the north.
Four rockets landed in Israel from Lebanon. Intelligence says that they came from a Jihadist group trying to make trouble for Hezbollah. So far the Israeli air force has made one strike in retaliation. Expect condemnations of Israel.
Also worrying are events to the south, where the Sinai can be a launching site for missiles especially problematic for Israeli forces.
Still on the agenda is Iran's nuclear program, with Israeli commentators more sure than ever that Obama's words without action against Syrian weapons of mass destruction signal more of the same against Iran.
Wouldn't it be better for Obama and his European chorus to practice greater verbal restraint in the presence of their impotence? Or--in the phrase learned on the playgrounds of Fall River--to shut up?
The harm resulting from Obama's style may be minimal or significant. Who at this point is listening to the American leader, except his domestic constituencies who voted for the politically correct and aspire to its continuation? If anyone believes American bombast, the damage to themselves is their own fault.
There may be even some good coming from the reminder of American impotence.
Obama's words make it very clear that Israel is not likely to get much more than economic sanctions to help with Iran.
The sanctions are a great deal more than any economic leverage available to Israel, but they are not stopping Iran's nuclear program.
With respect to White House language like "an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable?" Hah!
With that and a handful of shekels, we can buy a Happy Meal at McDonalds.
Currently the American President is a subject of ridicule in Israeli media.
He is in danger of losing the cooperation of the Israeli government.
Israel is not the lackey of the United States. On occasion, it has done what Americans think is embarrassing, or even harmful to their interests. Moreover, Israel's restraint in dealing with its troublesome neighbors is not solely a product of American advice and pressure. It owes a great deal to Jewish morality and Israeli wisdom.
Nonetheless, American pressure may play a role in limiting how Israel responds to provocations. And currently, it may play a role in leading Israel to greater flexibility with respect to Palestinians.
However, when the American President is the subject of ridicule, and when there is already opposition within the government to further concessions with respect to Palestinians, this may be an occasion when the American administration will pay a price for its President speaking so loudly and carrying no stick.
And there remains the issue of Iran.
None of us commoners knows how close is the Israeli government to risking considerable damage to us and others by taking more forceful action to end what its Prime Minister has termed the strategic threat of Iranian nuclear weapons?
To be sure, our Prime Minister resembles Barack Obama in speaking much more forcefully than he acts. Yet if the most recent demonstration of Obama's bluster leads the Israeli government to send its air force to Iran, and thereby pulls the United States into something it does not want, then Americans as well as Israelis will be paying something substantial for the President's empty words.
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