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Column: Starvation Was Unacceptable in Darfur, But It’s OK in Syria?

If you had said in 2008 that the administration of Susan Rice, John Kerry and Barack Obama would do nothing while a dictator deliberately starved more than a quarter-million of his people, no one would have believed you. All three had condemned the Bush administration for allowing people to starve in Darfur, Sudan, and passionately demanded action.

Today, an equivalent humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in Syria. Forces loyal to Bashar Assad have besieged as many as 290,000 people near Damascus, who are dying of hunger, according to United Nations officials.

Fewer people have died in Syria than in the Darfur region of Sudan, but still the number exceeds 100,000. More Syrians are homeless: more than 2 million — 10 percent of the population — have fled Syria altogether, and millions more are displaced within the country.

Yet the Obama administration, while providing aid for refugees, has done virtually nothing for the people inside. How could this be?

Here are some possible explanations.

They don’t know what is happening.

Seven weeks ago Secretary of State Kerry bemoaned “Assad’s war of starvation” in an op-ed. He cited “reports of severe malnutrition across vast swaths of Syria suffering under regime blockades ... risks (of) a ‘lost generation’ of Syrian children traumatized, orphaned, and starved by this barbaric war. ... The regime has systematically blocked food shipments to strategically located districts, leading to a rising toll of death and misery.”

Ignorance can’t be the explanation.

What’s happening in Syria is a civil war, not a humanitarian catastrophe.

Yes, a civil war is taking place, with barbarism on both sides. Yes, it is complicated. Yes, as Obama says, only a political settlement can end the fighting.

But all of that was true of Darfur, as well. Susan Rice, now Obama’s national security adviser, did not believe then that humanitarian considerations should be set aside while ambassadors tried to jump-start negotiations.

“Diplomacy takes time,” Rice testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007. “America’s principal priority in Darfur must be to stop the suffering and killing, and to do so quickly. ... Both efforts must proceed in tandem, but the stopping of mass murder must be the most urgent task.”

There’s nothing we can do.

No one wants to send U.S. troops to Syria; no one contemplated sending U.S. troops to Darfur. Yet Rice understood how many other feasible, affordable options exist, as she co-wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2004: “Such military action might entail airdrops, a no-fly zone to protect civilians from government bombing, the establishment of humanitarian safe zones and security for critical deliveries by rail and road.”

If Rice and her boss today tasked the Pentagon to develop options to save the Syrian people from starvation, the Pentagon would deliver options. They might not save everyone. But they would save thousands, and they would be feasible and affordable.

U.S. action would be illegal without U.N. approval, and Russia would block U.N. approval.

“Perhaps,” Rice wrote in 2006, with two co-authors. “But the Security Council recently codified a new international norm prescribing ‘the responsibility to protect.’ It commits U.N. members to decisive action, including enforcement, when peaceful measures fail to halt genocide or crimes against humanity.”

Deliberate starvation of hundreds of thousands of civilians constitutes a crime against humanity.

Sadly, that seems to leave one possibility:

It doesn’t matter to us.

That wasn’t Obama’s posture when he contemplated the Darfur tragedy. “When you read just horrendous accounts of entire villages being decimated and children being murdered ... it just breaks your heart, and humanitarian concerns should be sufficient,” he said in 2006. “But we also have a strong national security interest. If you start seeing more and more failed states, more and more displaced persons, more and more refugees, all of that becomes a breeding ground for terrorist activity.”

Nor was it his posture when Syrians first protested for democracy, nor even as Assad intensified his crackdown. “The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up,” he vowed in April 2012.

Yet, by September 2013, Obama sounded as though he had given up: “(T)he United States can’t get in the middle of somebody else’s civil war,” he told ABC News.

Seven weeks ago, Kerry wrote plaintively: “The world cannot sit by watching innocents die.” But of course the world can and does.

The Kerry, Rice and Obama we thought we knew would have put it differently.

“America cannot sit by watching innocents die,” they would have said.

But Obama’s America can, and does.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor of The Washington Post.