My father used to say that if you have to think about something very long, you probably shouldn’t do it. That seems to be the case with President Barack Obama’s deliberations over whether to launch a limited military strike on Syria’s ruling regime to emphasize that its use of chemical warfare against its own citizenry or anyone else won’t be tolerated. The president has been sending mixed messages to Syrian President Bashar Assad ever since speculation arose Aug. 21, with reports of people dying and video images of people gasping, wailing and convulsing.
On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry informed the world that the almost-certain use of sarin gas on Syrian civilians — which killed more than 1,400, including women and children, in a Damascus suburb — would prompt the harshest measures against the Syrian military. There seemed no doubt of an imminent response, presumably of cruise missiles launched from U.S. ships in the Mediterranean.
But Saturday, after a White House conference and demands by members of Congress for a voice in the matter, Obama decided to postpone any military action to give the national legislature a chance to debate and vote on the issue.
So much for the immediacy of the situation, because Congress doesn’t return from its August recess until Sept. 9. Debate probably will be preceded by a day or two of hearings to determine the validity of the charges against Assad — even though Kerry assured the world Sunday that traces of sarin were found on blood and hair samples collected from emergency workers responding to the scene.
All this dithering merely serves to keep the nation and the world off balance and, if nothing else, tells our allies and our foes that indecisiveness is the byword of our foreign policy. Chemical warfare was outlawed after World War I; either the ban is worth preserving or it isn’t. And if it is, what should be done to those who violate it?
We originally thought this president had a definitive answer. After all, months ago he drew a symbolic red line: He announced swift reprisal for violating the longtime ban on the use of chemical weapons. Such an incident occurred and nothing has happened.
Now what happens if the Congress votes against any such action to punish Assad? It’s a distinct possibility, given the political forces at work.
The president has said he wants the vote, despite the fact that he believes he has the power to act on his own. Does he ignore any congressional disapproval and go ahead? Or, having called for the debate, does he abide by its outcome?
What’s different about chemical warfare, which can kill tens of thousands? Conventional warfare can do the same. There are complex reasons, not the least of which is that chemical elements are not only indiscriminate in their sweep but quite difficult to handle. There is no escaping them, as might be possible in a bomb shelter or in a ditch as bullets fly or bombs explode. There also is no warning, and the results are painful.
As a young reporter doing two weeks of reserve Army duty at a site that produced and stored these weapons, I became acutely aware of their potential instability. The antidote, atropine, was available in every venue from toilet stalls to closets. Day and night, men wearing gas masks checked the tanks where the element was kept. Any serious leakage could cause a disaster in the surrounding community. The insidiousness of this weapon was frightening; even its preparation for use so delicate that few wanted the duty.
As we’re ending the prolonged nightmare in Iraq and Afghanistan, involving ourselves in another military affair is not something to take lightly. But what is our obligation to warn, emphatically and with consequences, those who even in civil conflicts employ weapons of mass destruction with impunity?
Obama may have thought about it too long.