Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, was a senior Middle East adviser to President Obama from 2009 to 2011.
The opponents of congressional authorization for military strikes against Syria are focused on one set of concerns: the belief that the costs of action are simply too high and uncertain. Syria for them is a civil war, with few apparent good guys and far too many bad guys. The use of chemical weapons is, in their eyes, terrible, but ultimately it is not our problem — unless, of course, we make it our problem by reacting militarily. If we do, they see a slippery slope in which the initial use of force will inevitably suck us into a conflict that we cannot win. Coming on the heels of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which cost us so much in blood and treasure, the U.S. public, as polls show, is both weary and wary of any further involvement in Middle East conflicts.
The wariness is understandable, but it does not make the cost of inaction any lower. Opponents in Congress, who can be found in both parties, seem to feel that if we simply don’t act, there will be no cost for us. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have pointed out that there will be a great cost to international norms that prohibit the use of terror weapons such as chemical weapons. And surely they are right that if Bashar al-Assad can gas his own people and elicit only harsh words but no punitive action, he will use the weapons again. The price in Syria and the potential for spillover in the region are certain to be high. Additionally, other rogue actors may also draw the conclusion that chemical weapons are not only usable but that there are no circumstances, no outrages, no genocidal actions that would trigger a meaningful reaction from the so-called civilized world.