President Barack Obama deserves some credit for having the courage to put the brakes on what appeared to be an ill-advised rush to punish Syria’s Bashar Assad.
Deliberation is called for. Now Congress will have an opportunity to reject or authorize the use of force against Assad. I’m betting on rejection, which will create another crisis. But after the tensions of last week, it suddenly feels like we have some time to figure out what to do.
Obama’s hawkish response to Assad’s gas massacre of at least 1,400 of his citizens, more than 400 of them children, is understandable. It’s hard to see how we can pretend that this blatant violation of sanctions against chemical weapons never happened.
But the proposed limited strike invites skepticism. After such a strike, in the best case Assad will not use chemical weapons again. If he does, however, our next move is horrible to contemplate: There’s no such thing as a second shot across the bow.
But if Assad is chastened by a modest barrage of Tomahawk missiles, the killing will continue with conventional weapons, on a scale greater than the suffering that chemical weapons have inflicted so far. Nothing is more tenacious than a despot whose regime — and life — is at stake. And no war is more brutal than a civil war.
But as the shadows of Afghanistan and Iraq still linger, our country has little appetite for more war in the Middle East. The administration has been careful to insist that any military strike would be very limited — a punishment for Assad, not an effort to affect the outcome of Syria’s civil war. Above all, there will be no American “boots on the ground.”
An inherent contradiction arises. The administration is arguing in favor of a military strike on the basis of an immutable moral principle: that no one can use chemical weapons to commit atrocities with impunity. But our commitment to this principle is limited to what we can do from a safe distance, which is to say it’s not much of a commitment at all.
In fact, it’s reminiscent of too-good-to-be-true ads: Lose weight without dieting or exercise! Earn $5,000 per week at home in your pajamas! Learn a foreign language without tedious drills!
Nevertheless, a reasonably credible case for a limited strike can be made. In “Reinforce a Norm In Syria,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof sees hope that such a strike might convince Assad to stop using chemical weapons and “reinforce the international norm against weapons of mass destruction.”
He says, “For all the risks of hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, it’s better to stand up inconsistently to some atrocities than to acquiesce consistently in them all.”
He might be right. I’m not a pacifist; sometimes war is the only option. But consider a worthy new “international norm,” one that insists on diplomacy and soft power before military force. A deeper commitment to that norm by the world’s only superpower might carry more weight than a dubious missile strike.
It’s important that we stay where we are at present, on the right side of the moral argument. The moral case should be made, with all of Obama’s eloquence, first to Congress, but also to the United Nations.
Resolutions that provide for hard sanctions against Assad are unlikely to survive in the Security Council because of Russia and China. But those countries should be forced to defend their positions publicly and to vote to reject sanctions.
Their recalcitrance should be met with significant, meaningful responses. Here’s a minor example: We already have one good reason — Russia’s homophobia — to boycott the Olympics next year. This is another one.
I’m not optimistic that the current dilemma can be resolved diplomatically. Soft power always has to be backed up with hard power. But let’s restrain our confidence in our ability to make good things happen with force. The record has not been impressive.