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Duties Without Borders

CAMBRIDGE – More than 130,000 people are said to have died in Syria’s civil war. United Nations reports of atrocities, Internet images of attacks on civilians, and accounts of suffering refugees rend our hearts. But what is to be done – and by whom?

Recently, the Canadian scholar-politician Michael Ignatieff urged US President Barack Obama to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, despite the near-certainty that Russia would veto the United Nations Security Council resolution needed to legalize such a move. In Ignatieff’s view, if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is allowed to prevail, his forces will obliterate the remaining Sunni insurgents – at least for now; with hatreds inflamed, blood eventually will flow again.

In an adjoining article, the columnist Thomas Friedman drew some lessons from the United States’ recent experience in the Middle East. First, Americans understand little about the social and political complexities of the countries there. Second, the US can stop bad things from happening (at considerable cost), but it cannot make good things happen by itself. And, third, when America tries to make good things happen in these countries, it runs the risk of assuming responsibility for solving their problems.

So what are a leader’s duties beyond borders? The problem extends far beyond Syria – witness recent killings in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Somalia, and other places. In 2005, the UN General Assembly unanimously recognized a “responsibility to protect” citizens when their own government fails to do so, and in 2011 it was invoked in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, authorizing the use of military force in Libya.