Syria dominates domestic discussion and debate, as it should. Whether and how the United States reacts to the evidence of Syrian use of chemical weapons on August 21st is a consequential matter, not to be taken lightly regardless of where one falls on the range of views.
Those for whom it’s a slam-dunk one way or the other may be missing something big.
For the full-speed-ahead, damn-the-consequences camp, pause for just one moment. Any miscalculations could entangle the U.S. in an endlessly complex civil war, once again proving that it can be far easier to enter than exit a conflict.
For the don’t-touch-it-at-all-costs camp, think again. American passivity could give a green light to malicious global actors with weapons of mass destruction to forge ahead, believing that Washington won’t respond, and paving the way for even worse calamities ahead.
At the end of the day, I can’t remain on the 50-yard line. The case for limited U.S. action is far stronger than for no U.S. action.
Why? Let’s first be clear regarding what this is not about.
It’s not about any desire to commit U.S. troops to the Syrian battlefield, nor to endorse an open-ended action. Both could prove disastrous. At the end of the day, the Syrian civil war is not our war. Moreover, a conflict that increasingly has taken the shape of Assad’s thuggish regime versus Sunni jihadists doesn’t offer much in the way of appealing choices.
It’s also not about Israel, much as I hear reference to it in the public discourse.
In fact, Israel is now on high alert, its citizens having been issued gas masks, because the troika – Syria and its till-death-do-us part allies, Iran and Hezbollah – might seek to divert attention by opening a new front. But Israel’s reliability as an American ally means the willingness to accept greater risks to support Washington’s national security interests. That’s a point worth noting.
And it’s not about partisanship.
Some suggest that President Obama needs to be “rescued” from a trap of his own making by having issued the “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons last year. Others want to punish the president, engaging in a kind of schadenfreude, to seize on his current vulnerability.
For me, what hangs in the balance is not about an individual but our country.
If the United States now flinches and, despite our declared “red line,” lets Syria get away with this use of chemical weapons, then what is the message sent to the world?
The answer should be quite obvious.
To our adversaries, it will be seen as an abdication of American leadership, which, in turn, will invite still more challenges to American interests and values.
Leaders from Tehran to Pyongyang will conclude that Americans are war weary and unwilling to match deed with word. As a result, these leaders may become still more assertive, emboldened, and threatening.
And why would they then opt to believe any other American “red line” if we failed to act on this one?
In other words, an already dangerous world would only become still more so. For example, would the Syrians or others revert again to chemical weapons, and would the death toll mount into the tens of thousands the next time?
True, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq also used chemical weapons against Iran and his own Kurdish citizens, with massive numbers killed. But the failure of the international community to act then cannot justify the failure to do so now. To the contrary, had he been confronted by the collective wrath of the world and forced to pay a price then, perhaps Bashar al-Assad might have thought twice before dipping into his own chemical weapons stockpile now.
And to America’s allies, what’s the message they would get, and how would that affect their own national security interests?
Surely, Seoul and Tokyo would be forced to take note, and wonder what American security guarantees vis-à-vis North Korea actually mean in the year 2013.
And Arab nations and Israel, ever mindful of the growing threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, might conclude that America’s repeated pledges to prevent Tehran from crossing the finish line may ring hollow, with profound implications from Riyadh to Jerusalem, from Amman to Dubai, and beyond.
Let’s hope that Congress, after reviewing the facts and taking into account what hangs in the balance, will do the right thing and authorize limited military action. The stakes for the United States, and the world, could not be any higher.