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Does Emotion Ever Have a Role in Foreign Policy?

Seeing the pictures from Syria this week of the bodies of women and children murdered – many at close range – reminds us again of the inhumanity of war. As hard as we try to put horrible images like these out of our minds, when they show up on television and in Internet video, they become part of our consciousness. Residents of Houla, the village where the massacre took place, described uniformed and black-garbed men going door to door and methodically shooting or stabbing women and children. Out of more than 100 civilians slain last weekend, almost half, unbelievably, were children.

The newest attacks outraged observers around the world, who have already been horrified by the deaths of as many as 13,000 people, almost all reportedly at the hands of the Syrian military or the mysterious “shabiha,” the pro-regime militiamen who are primarily recruited from the Alawite sect. President Bashar al-Assad and the senior people in his government belong to this ethnic group. The opposition to Assad’s regime insists it is entirely secular, but the assassination-like killings in Houla and elsewhere of mainly Sunni Muslims (who are the majority in Syria) by Alawites, who are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are raising questions about whether a secular conflict has turned into a religious one.

The violence has also given weight to the arguments that the United States and other countries – in the region and in Europe – should step in to support the opposition. Former Republican presidential nominee John McCain has called for the U.S. military to create a “no-fly” zone or to take some other action to intervene. The presumptive GOP nominee this year, Mitt Romney, has also called for the U.S. to get involved, among other reasons, to send a message to Syria’s ally, Iran. President Obama’s administration, calling the Syrian situation far more complicated than what happened in Libya, has joined with leaders of European nations and countries close to Syria in emphasizing a diplomatic approach, especially given the adamant opposition of the Russians and the Chinese to outside interference with their Middle East friend.

Still, there are the pictures. One white-covered shroud after another, lined up in rows, some tiny and clearly covering the bodies of young children. There is the eyewitness testimony from the 11-year-old who described how he dropped to the floor in his house after his family members had been murdered, smeared his six-year-old brother’s blood on himself, and played dead. These are the scenes we remember and struggle with, passed along by journalists, as we think about what the rest of the world, including the U.S., should do.

Former White House National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski was unambiguous this week in saying despite the atrocities, the conflict “is not as horrible or as dramatic as it is portrayed.” On MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Brzezinski disagreed with a rising chorus suggesting maybe the time has come for the U.S. and the rest of the “civilized world” to act. He observed it is not as bad as other recent conflicts around the world, like “the horrible war in Sri Lanka, the killings in Rwanda, the deaths in Libya and so forth – you know, let’s have a sense of proportion here.”

When I heard those comments, they seemed unfeeling. One can argue that the outside world should have stepped in to prevent all the terrible events he referred to in those other places. But arguments persist to this day about those conflicts, and certainly the multi-layered political and security web that makes up the Middle East only adds to the hesitation to interfere in Syria.

I’m momentarily reassured by the logic of all that. But still, the terrible images don’t disappear. Diplomats have to do their jobs, but they’re also parents, husbands and wives. When does human suffering become so unacceptable that it injects itself into policy-making? Under what circumstances? Uneasy questions to turn over in our minds, especially this week.

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