There are two kinds of wars, we are told - wars of choice and wars of necessity. The former are to be avoided and the latter fought with appropriate reluctance. World War II was a good and necessary war, but Vietnam was not. The war in Iraq was a matter of choice (also of imbecility), but Afghanistan was not - although it now may be. Wars can change over time. The one in Syria certainly has. It has gone from a war of choice to a war of necessity that President Barack Obama did not choose to fight. A mountain of dead testifies to his mistake.
More than 60,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians. An estimated 650,000 refugees have fled across Syria's various borders, about 142,000 to Jordan alone. They live in miserable conditions, soaked and frozen by the chilling rains of the Mediterranean winter, caked in mud. Children have died. More children will die.
The war threatens to destabilize a whole region. The Kurds in Syria's north are restless. The Palestinians, refugees in Syria from their one-time homeland, are refugees yet again in Jordan. Lebanon is awash with Syrians, fellow Muslims but often of a different sort. The ethnic nitroglycerin of that country - an unstable mixture of Sunnis and Shiites, various Christians and Druze - looks increasingly unstable. All Lebanese are mental census takers: Has their group increased or decreased and what does it mean?
And what of Bashar al-Assad, the unimpressive son of a frighteningly impressive father? Will he seek exile in Moscow, possibly rooming with that vulgarian, Gerard Depardieu? Not likely. Assad will retreat to the Alawite redoubt in northern Syria and the slaughter will continue. Bloodbath will follow bloodbath, a settling of scores from the recent past, the distant past and - just for good measure - the imagined future: Kill before you can be killed. It's the earliest form of hedging.
I am talking about a misery that beggars description. I am talking of infants dying of dysentery and the old taking one last feeble step. I am talking about barbarity that always accompanies civil war, and I am talking, finally, of a catastrophe that could have been avoided. A little muscle from NATO, which is to say the United States, could have put an end to this thing early on. The imposition of a no-fly zone, as was done in Libya, would not only have grounded Syrian airplanes and helicopters but would have convinced the military and intelligence services early on that Assad was doomed and the outcome was not in doubt. Early on there were places he could have gone.
But the White House was resolute in its irresolution. A presidential campaign was on, and it was no time for foreign adventures. Iraq was winding down; with any luck, Afghanistan would too. The United States had no dog in the Syrian fight and, besides, Washington - in an admission of incompetence - could not tell the good guys from the bad guys. Waiting cleared things up. Now the bad guys (jihadists and others) are more in control, and the moderates have, as moderates usually do, lost out to radicals. Procrastination, as well as the prospect of one's hanging, clarifies the mind.
In retrospect, this was a war of necessity. It was necessary to avoid a regional calamity, the spread of more violence to Lebanon and Iraq. It was necessary to avoid a humanitarian disaster, great suffering that could have been avoided or at least mitigated. It was necessary to take a stand against barbarity because this is - is it not? - a basic obligation. It was necessary to intervene because we could do so at very little cost. To do what you can when you can might not have the Metternichian ring of a Great Strategic Doctrine, but it has the force of common sense. It is both compelling and workable. We are talking, simply, of saving lives.
It was necessary, finally, because the thugs of this world must not only be held accountable by the world community, they must know they will be held accountable by the world community. The indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns must not be tolerated. The purposeful killing of journalists must not be tolerated. The people of any country are not chattel to be treated any way their government wants. This - a furious sense of moral indignation - must return to American foreign policy and be the centerpiece of Obama's second term. This is no longer a matter of choice. It is a necessity.
Richard Cohen writes for The Washington Post. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.