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We can’t look away from Syria now

WASHINGTON DC - AUGUST 30:  U.S. Secretary State John Kerry makes statement State Department August 30 2013 WashingtDC. Kerry

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 30: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry makes a statement at the State Department August 30, 2013 in Washington, DC. Kerry spoke on the current situation in Syria. He said an earlier chemical attack by Bashar al-Assad's regime against his people has killed at least 1,429 people, including 426 children. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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Updated: October 2, 2013 6:35AM

‘No boots on the ground.”

“No open-ended military commitment.”

“No role in tipping civil war.”

Of all the arguments and assurances Secretary of State John Kerry offered Friday in making the case for a United States attack against Syria, as punishment for its government’s use of chemical weapons, those were the words that likely mattered most to the American people.

Our nation is sick of war. Polls show that Americans overwhelmingly oppose any military action against Syria, especially without consent from Congress. If President Barack Obama nonetheless remains determined to send a message to Syria via cruise missiles — and we don’t see how he has a choice — it had better be precise and limited.

Or the president is on his own.

As it is, the United States already is pretty much on its own in this one, with no chance of the United Nations getting on board and with the British backing off. Kerry on Friday rattled off the names of supporters such as France, Turkey and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, but to our ears that sounded a lot like President George W. Bush’s lame “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq.

When all is said and done, though, we can’t see how the United States dare not respond to Syria President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. The United States, Kerry said, has determined with “high confidence” that chemical weapons released by government troops killed at least 1,429 Syrians, including at least 426 children, in a single attack on Aug. 21 in a suburb of Damascus.

“This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons,” Kerry said. “This is what Assad did to his own people.”

President Obama warned last year that any use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” and trigger an American — or, he envisioned, an international — response. To look away now would be to do great damage to the credibility of the United States and its allies. Other nations contemplating the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as Iran and North Korea, are “watching,” Kerry warned, and “they want to see if it means anything when we say something.”

International condemnation has minimized the use of chemical weapons since World War I, and any breach of that dam now invites a flood. Such a scenario would be particularly horrific to Israel, where the use of chemical weapons by a hostile neighbor presents a fundamental existential threat, but nations such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon also would not rest easy.

The United States need not wait on the United Nations to complete its investigation in Syria. As Kerry said, the U.N. will only confirm that chemical weapons were used — a largely undisputed fact at this point — and not who was responsible.

We don’t agree with Obama’s decision to seek congressional support for strikes against Syria. Presidents going back decades now have authorized military action short of war without consulting Congress. But now that Obama has made that decision, Congress can’t duck its responsibility to support him, and should act quickly.

With no great enthusiasm, we support a highly limited military response to the atrocities in Syria because we have seen and read the public evidence — and we believe the White House — that Assad did in fact use chemical weapons. What we don’t see is a repeat of the falsehoods and fabrications trotted out by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq. We have seen the photos of dead Syrian children lined up in graves.

Obama clearly has decided only with great reluctance to send a message to Assad.

It is not the act of a warrior, but of a humanitarian.

Update: This editorial has been updated to state our position on President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for a strike against Syria.

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