Most Americans find themselves on the sidelines, hoping for good sense and justice to prevail in Syria, but well knowing in which way the debate will turn — to war. Because that's really the only option being considered.
The discussion has moved automatically past diplomacy to whether U.S. military forces should use Tomahawk missiles on Damascus, or just Tomahawk Assad and his top cronies, and to whether we should put "boots on the ground," or not.
"Limited" war, or war more terrible still?
For 60 years, government officials fretted first about American interests, which are usually business interests, not political ones. Rarely have this country's shows of military force dealt with real issues of "national security." As the world's paramount military force, the U.S. has thrown its weight around first and asked why it all went wrong later.
America is like a blinded giant in a panic room, and the walls aren't padded. The response to these situations has been almost automatic: lash out. Sometimes, as in Iraq, we even manufactured the crisis and threat ourselves.
But no matter the stimulus, the response has almost always been guns and missiles, to promote a long war which somehow always seems to lead to a short and enervated peace.
Yes, Syrians have a right to self-determination. All peoples do. Yes, sorting that out has cost up to 100,000 lives so far, with more death and suffering to come. And Assad gassed his own people, apparently (though who would put it past al Qaida to do it, if only as a provocation).
Assad is the typical despot. Power is his first priority, with the well-being of his own people far down the list; and he has proven he will kill them, in whatever manner he chooses, if it suits his purposes.
So his people are trying to remove him. More power to them.
But Assad is only this year's prime example. Who should intervene, and when? What is a shocked world's proper response?
Start with this: millions of Syrians have already fled the civil war, and fled Assad. America's first priority should be to help those refugees.
Surrounding countries have absorbed the millions, but their resources are becoming overwhelmed. Instead of responding militarily to "teach those people a lesson," America, as the greatest power on Earth, should finally learn its own lesson.
It is well past time to start using this nation's power and wealth and influence to help humanity, not to rule it. As a government and a people, we must provide billions of dollars in aid to the relief camps, with food and water and supplies and doctors and temporary housing.
As a bonus, the American flag flying alongside those of Jordan in Jordan, and Turkey in Turkey, and Lebanon in Lebanon, will show the world this country is living its ideals, that America values human life above death, and self-determination above the imposed will of an outside force.
The alternative, the American flag flying over Damascus, will just mean still more death and will lead to more poverty, more ruin, more suffering — and, in the end, more terrorists. Assad would be gone, but who knows who or what would take his place?
The other advantage to humanitarian aid is: it's actually much cheaper than war. The military effort in Iraq cost America $2 trillion; Afghanistan's costs now have gone past that. These were unfunded wars, and undemocratic ones. (No draftees, quickly flagging national will.) They were disasters on many levels.
The primary group benefiting, in the end: America's military-industrial complex. And the terrorists gained, stirring the ashes of hatred and resentment that America's warring left behind.
Just what the Afghans and the Iraqis have gained, in the balance, seems more debatable.
You can make peace and demand certain conditions. But you cannot make people free with certain conditions. They are either free of you or they are not.
The world is tired of the flailing giant in the panic room and only abides him because they have no choice.
Time to stop flailing, America. Time to do the right thing.
Mike Corrigan of Lewiston is a member of Maine Veterans for Peace.