The New York Times headline says it all: “Assad’s Lesson From Aleppo: Force Works, With Few Consequences.”
There is a sense of disillusionment, retreat, and impotence about these terrible events. In his report for the Times, Ben Hubbard quotes Maha Yahya, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, saying, “Everybody has been watching helplessly as this conflict unfolds. . . . They are watching civilians being massacred mercilessly and all they can do is tweet about it and sign petitions.”
Cities have been sacked for as long as there have been any around to be leveled. The destruction of Carthage in 149 b.c. may be the sovereign example. The city fell after a three-year siege, destroyed so utterly that, they say, no stone was left upon another, and the land was sown with salt so that nothing could grow where the great city had once stood.
Carthage, of course, was not to be the last. Early in the “enlightened” 20th century, invading Germans leveled towns in Belgium in reprisal for civilian resistance, which they considered an outrage against the laws of civilized warfare. In the Spanish Civil War, they flattened Guernica from the air, strafing civilians fleeing on the roads outside the town.
In the second of the world wars, the bombing of cities became routine. First, Germany bombed London, and the Allies retaliated. In the last months of the war, the Germans were launching ballistic missiles against London, and the Allies were firebombing Dresden almost to oblivion. Japanese cities were also firebombed, and, of course, two were leveled by atomic bombs.
There was, in Vietnam, the case of the town that had to be destroyed in order to save it. And in Cambodia, Phnom Penh was not destroyed physically by the Khmer Rouge but by the alternative of exiling the city’s population to the countryside for “reeducation,” in fact encompassing the deaths of millions of Cambodians. This amounted to relearning the virtues of manual labor as understood by university-trained Marxists.
And now, in the 21st century and the epoch of globalization, with the whole world witnessing it live and in color on television, we have the fall of Aleppo.
When he was explaining his decision, in 2011, to intervene in Libya, President Obama said, “Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
But Syria and Aleppo, it seems, are somehow different even if those “images of slaughter and mass graves” are, in all the essentials, the same. So hopes for a Pax Americana now seem forlorn. And then there is the United Nations, which might be the purest symbol of disillusionment and impotence.
The U.N. was created, after World War II, in a spirit of hope. This time, the world would get it right, unlike the League of Nations experiment that followed what President Woodrow Wilson once called the “war to end all wars.”
The league was conceived to be the agency to enforce the postwar peace. It didn’t work, of course. That the United States did not become a member of the league doomed it to failure, in the conventional wisdom. This was the go-to excuse for the league’s failure to act against aggressor states, especially Italy, which waged a war of conquest against Ethiopia in the 1930s and, among other atrocities, employed mustard gas in attacks, from the air, against civilians. If the world could not stand up to Italy—even with the United States on the sidelines—there was not much hope it would do anything to resist more powerful aggressor nations like Japan, Germany, and the Soviet Union.
So the league failed, and the war came. After which came another attempt at organizing the world. This would be the United Nations.
It is difficult, now, to appreciate the magnitude of hope that came with this effort. This time, the world was all in. The Korean War would actually be fought under the flag of the U.N., and if you were optimistic by nature, you could see some good in that. And then there were big personalities who attached themselves to the project in one form or another. Eleanor Roosevelt was the U.N.’s American face in its early days. She made the case for something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is an embarrassment now with its guarantees, among other things, to “rest and leisure [and] to participate in the cultural life of the community.”
Still, the U.N. was a serious enterprise, and serious people committed themselves to it. Adlai Stevenson during the Cuban Missile Crisis challenged the Soviet delegate and said he was prepared to “wait until Hell freezes over” for his answer. William F. Buckley Jr., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Jeane Kirkpatrick all forcefully made the case at the U.N. for freedom around the world. The U.N. was Abe Rosenthal’s beat for several years, early in his journalistic career—back when the New York Times considered it worthy of full-time coverage by an up-and-coming reporter. When George H. W. Bush was insisting that Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait “will not stand,” he secured the U.N.’s blessing for the coalition he assembled and took to war. At that moment it appeared that the U.N., for all its by-then-obvious defects, might still have a part in the “new world order” he envisioned.
There were failures, of course—atrocities of the sort the U.N. might have been conceived to prevent. Most conspicuously, perhaps, in Rwanda, where at least 800,000 died in a few weeks of genocidal fury.
That tragedy was studied by Samantha Power, who is, at present, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide was widely praised by, among others, President Obama. When he appointed her, the expectation was that she would be a forceful advocate for intervention to prevent the kind of horrors she had written about and for which she held the Clinton administration responsible.
Her outrage has not lost its edge. As Aleppo crumbled, she gave a U.N. speech in which she declared,
Aleppo will join the ranks of those events in world history that define modern evil, that stain our conscience decades later. Halabja, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and, now, Aleppo. . . . To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes. Your barrel bombs and mortars and airstrikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose. It is your noose. Three member states of the U.N. contributing to a noose around civilians. It should shame you. . . . Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin?
The question obviously was rhetorical. The United States is unwilling, and this means that the U.N. is impotent. It turns out that there is either a Pax Americana or there is no Pax at all.
That does not mean, however, that the U.N. is unwilling to take a stand where it can have an effect.
Back in October, the U.N. named a comic book heroine, Wonder Woman, as a sort of notional “ambassador.” A declaration was issued (and what would the U.N. be without declarations?) saying that the gesture was meant for “women and girls everywhere, who are wonder women in their own right, and the men and boys who support their struggle for gender equality.” Actresses who have played Wonder Woman on television and in an upcoming film spoke at the U.N. ceremony.
Now the initiative has been discontinued. It seems almost 50,000 people signed a petition asserting, “A large-breasted white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring bodysuit with an American flag motif and knee-high boots” is not the appropriate figure for advancing the cause of women and girls in the world.
So bye-bye Ambassador Wonder Woman. It seems the U.N. actually can be counted on to act—and act decisively—in a comic-book crisis.
Just not in Aleppo.
Geoffrey Norman, a writer in Vermont, is a frequent contributor to The Weekly Standard.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard