Its become clear that the United States is preparing to launch a military strike on Syria, and its evident that President Obama feels he has little choice but to do so. The president drew a red line last August in warning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to use chemical weapons in his countrys civil war. That line had historical precedent and a critical purpose: To assure leaders now and in the future that they will pay a price for inflicting such horror.
But now that the red line has been crossed, Obama faces nothing but bad choices.
He could launch a sharp but limited strike against Syrias military assets. Along with the message it would send, a strike also could weaken Assad enough to give Syrian opposition forces a chance to gain ground. But military action might trigger responses that destabilize the region, a possibility Syrian ally Russia warned about this week. Already, Iran is threatening a retaliatory attack on Israel.
The diplomatic route, however, is also problematic. Backing away from Obamas red line would be acquiescing to Assads brutality, and it sends an equally powerful message to countries like Iran, which has been warned by Obama about developing nuclear weapons. Also, the non-military approach is already threatening the region, with Syria becoming a new home for al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
Thankfully, one option seems off the table a more rigorous military involvement with a goal of regime change. But as former U.S. officials warned this week, even a limited strike could draw the U.S. into Syrias civil war, much as the U.S. was drawn into deeper wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the end, as with any military decision, the president must ask what would be gained and just as importantly, how much he is willing to lose. A limited strike would do little to prompt a change in regime, and it likely wouldnt eliminate Assads violence against his people.
The purpose of military action here is simple: It allows the U.S. to fulfill its responsibility in saying no to the use of chemical weapons. Thats an important declaration to make, but the risks of a strike may be even graver than the horror we want to stop.
Opinions vary wildly on potential U.S. military action. A sampling of what others are saying:
Help the moderate forces
From a Washington Post editorial:
The fact that Syria offers no perfect outcomes or options does not mean that all possible outcomes are equally undesirable. It remains in the United States interest now as two years ago to see more moderate forces prevail. This cant be achieved with one or two volleys of cruise missiles. It will require patience and commitment.
The United States cant dictate the outcome in Syria, and it would be foolish to send ground troops in an effort to do so. But by combining military measures with training, weapons supplies and diplomacy, it could exercise considerable influence. The military measures could include destroying forces involved in chemical weapons use and elements of the Syrian air force that have been used to target civilians, as well as helping to carve out a safe zone for rebels and the civilian populations they are seeking to protect.
Such military action should be seen as one component of a policy that finally recognizes a U.S. interest in helping to shape Syrias future.
Punish a war crime
From a Chicago Tribune editorial:
Hundreds of victims streamed into Damascus-area hospitals last week, all suffering from the same symptoms. They trembled. They had blurred vision. They gasped for breath. They convulsed.
And then many died...
The 1925 Geneva Protocol said the prohibition against chemical weapons shall be universally accepted as part of International Law, binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations. Note that phrase: The conscience and the practice of nations. For nearly a century, nearly every government has abided by this treaty, forswearing use of such weapons. Were that to change, should such weapons be regularly deployed, wars across the globe would be even more destructive and ruinous.
Assad may have calculated that he will not be caught or punished for a war crime. That he can win his civil war by unleashing ever-escalating horrors upon innocent civilians, including women and children. The world needs to show him that he is wrong.
Just doing the expected?
From Stephen Walt, professor of international relations, Harvard University:
More than anything else, Obama reminds me here of George Orwell in his famous essay Shooting an Elephant. Orwell recounts how, while serving as a colonial officer in Burma, he was forced to shoot a rogue elephant simply because the local residents expected an official of the British Empire to act this way, even when the animal appeared to pose no further danger. If he didnt go ahead and dispatch the poor beast, he feared that his prestige and credibility might be diminished. Like Orwell, Obama seems to be sliding toward doing something because he feels he simply cant afford not to.
Sad, but also revealing.
When inaction is costly
From John Norris, executive director of the Sustainable Security program at the Center for American Progress, for Foreign Policy:
Assad is right in thinking that President Obama desperately wants to avoid military action in Syria. The choices involved in such a decision are so unpalatable that you actually have commentators arguing with a straight face that the best case we can hope for is a prolonged stalemate between Assad and the rebels, shades of the U.S. position on the long, bloody Iran-Iraq war.
But Assads great miscalculation is in not realizing that at some point the costs of inaction simply outweigh the cost of action for Washington and its allies. It does not serve the United States, the European Union, or anyone else well to be seen as feckless in the face of such horrors. It undermines the legitimacy of the international order and makes it more likely that other despots will employ similar tactics. At some point, inaction carries higher political costs both domestically and internationally than action.
Does Assad really think that secretary of state Kerry, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power and national security adviser Susan Rice all relatively new in their posts and all with a strong human rights record will simply advise the president to sit on his hands?
Bears wake up.
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