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We must back Obama on Syria

Updated: October 7, 2013 1:10PM

The path to congressional approval of President Barack Obama’s request for authorization to punish Syria is messy, rocky and not a sure thing. All that will make a declaration by the Congress against Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons all the more powerful. And make no mistake, it’s a national imperative for Congress to give Obama what he wants.

You could argue that Obama never should have set the red line against use of sarin gas. But he did — despite his petty, weak-kneed claim the other day that the world, not he, set the red line. His no-chemical-weapons declaration means the credibility of a U.S. president, and thus the credibility of the United States, are at stake.

You could argue that the United States has no national interest directly tied to the deaths of 1,400 Syrians by chemical attack. Maybe in a very narrow sense, that’s true. But a broader context matters here. Obama and the Congress have placed U.S. policy firmly against Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Any failure of will to enforce Obama’s red line in Syria would be seen in Tehran as a green light to go ahead with developing nuclear weapons without fear of U.S. resolve to stop it.

You could argue that America has no dog in this fight — Assad is awful, but the rebels can’t succeed without the firepower and prowess of al-Qaida-linked jihadists. But Obama has narrowly tailored his response to degrading Assad’s chemical weapons capability and deterring him from doing it again. That’s too narrow a goal for hawks who say Assad must go, but it fits Obama’s limited policy.

You could argue that even that narrow objective might tip the balance of civil war toward the rebels. No doubt any act of war can have unintended and unforeseen consequences. But that doesn’t change the stakes for American credibility.

You could argue that America has no business being the world’s policeman and, given economic realities, can’t afford to be it. That’s a legitimate view, and despite the howls of hawks, not an isolationist stance. Less military intervention doesn’t directly translate into a withdrawal from world affairs. Still, it’s a debate best put off for another day free of the pressure of having to validate U.S. influence in a dangerous world.

You could argue no broad coalition backs intervention. Maybe so, but we’re talking about preserving the world’s trust, confidence and faith in the reliability of America’s word.

You could argue that Obama is adopting the cowboy unilateralism of George W. Bush. But Obama has a legitimate case that the use of weapons of mass destruction is so abhorrent that the United States is right to go it alone if necessary to deter their use.

You could argue, as Russian President Vladimir Putin claims and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon insinuates, that U.S. action without Security Council approval might have a questionable legal basis. Still, the United States, like it or not, remains the enforcer of world norms, and Assad has breached one of them.

Finally, you could argue intervention could lead to greater turmoil. But so could U.S. inaction, opening the way to even greater horrors by both sides in Syria and the region.

America’s place in the world is at stake. Congress should back Obama in punishing Assad’s war crimes


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