September 3, 2013

President Obama’s decision to ask Congress to authorize any action towards Syria is both courageous and correct. He ignored the inevitable scorn he would get from the armchair patriots who believe the U.S. president can dispatch the military anywhere, at any time, for any reason. He reportedly overruled the advice of most of his national security team that wanted to strike Syria without going to Congress. After the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s appeal for authority to join the United States in the Syrian strike, Obama knew the vote in this bitterly divided and dysfunctional Congress would be “a tough sell.”

But he made the right call, responding not only to his constitutional obligation but to the more than 150 legislators from both parties who signed letters calling on the president to seek approval from Congress before taking action. According to polls, a strike on Syria, even in response to the proven use of chemical weapons, is opposed by a plurality of Americans. Neither the United States nor its allies faces any imminent threat from the Syrian regime. If the United States is a constitutional democracy, surely this is a case where the Congress, the people’s representatives, should determine whether the nation gets involved in — as the president put it — “someone else’s war.”

Now it is time for democracy to work. The administration has begun to detail its case that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people. Members of Congress should probe and test the administration’s evidence, given the credibility gap created by the faulty intelligence that led to the Iraq war, not to mention the lies and distortions peddled by the Bush administration to sell that conflict. Congress should also arrange to receive and consider the report of the U.N. inspectors, because their report will be accepted by other members of the international community and will offer clues about those behind the attacks even if the mandate of the inspectors does not cover who was responsible for the alleged use of chemical weapons.

If in fact the Syrian government committed this atrocity, that only opens the question for Congress and the American people. As forceful as the president was in making the decision to go to Congress, his case for striking Syria militarily is far from compelling. The president argues correctly that the international community cannot simply ignore a grotesque violation of the ban on the use of chemical weapons — a ban signed by all but five countries. But there are a number of problems with the administration’s conclusion that the United States must enforce the norm against the use of chemicals weapons by military means.

To begin with, the treaty banning chemical weapons does not itself delegate to the United States the authority or the responsibility to make itself policeman, judge, jury and executioner of the response. Second, it follows that any use of military force must be sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council after considering the report of U.N. inspectors. Use of force without Security Council approval could itself be a violation of international law.

Third, the United States does not itself have clean hands, having been complicit in Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. The United States is also implicated in the civil war itself by being a supplier and trainer of the Syrian opposition.

Fourth, the president has defined the action as “a shot across the bow,” and other administration officials have said the strikes would be limited and discrete, in part to limit collateral damage and to avoid the United States tipping the balance of forces in Syria. But most of Syria’s strategic assets are clustered around civilian centers in Damascus and other Syrian cities. Even with the accuracy of cruise missiles, there will be civilian casualties and unintended consequences, including the danger of loss of control of chemical weapons. Thus, in seeking to enforce a humanitarian-based international law, the United States may end up causing considerable loss of life itself, undercutting whatever moral legitimacy it may have.

Finally, by claiming to act on behalf of the international communitydespite the Security Council being paralyzed by Russian and Chinese opposition, the United States makes itself the policeman of the world. The notion that the United States is the “indispensable nation,” that we police the globe, is simply unacceptable to much of the international community. It is also destructive to our values and future well-being. It drains our resources, our attention, our lives and our treasure on military interventions across the world. We become “responsible” for every outrage unpunished.

Instead of strengthening the world community’s commitment to enforce its agreements, this stance gives every other country a free pass. It reinforces the world’s view of the United States as the global imperial power rather than the international community’s shared responsibility for building and enforcing the rule of law.

If the purpose of military action is the enforcement of international law, then it is hard to understand how the administration’s announced military course of action makes sense. Just as importantly, it does not make strategic sense. Early on in the conflict, the administration committed itself to the removal of the Assad regime and has imposed sanctions and provided support for the rebels in pursuance of this goal. But in the face of mounting evidence of the dominant role al-Qaeda-like groups are playing in the opposition, it has wisely backed off that initial goal and has shown admirable resistance to getting more deeply involved. Instead, it began to work with Russia to put together a Geneva peace conference and try to prevent the civil war in Syria from engulfing the region.

Military strikes against the Assad government would reverse this wise correction in U.S. policy and draw us deeper into a conflict on the side of the rebels, which will only reinforce their resistance to any efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement. We are already more deeply implicated in this war than is desirable. Military strikes at this time may set us on a course of action and reaction that inevitably leads to other forms of intervention.

This is why the debate in Congress should not be perfunctory or partisan. Republicans should not oppose the resolution merely because the president proposed it. Democrats should not rally to support it simply to back the White House. Each legislator should weigh this decision carefully.

And the American people should make its own views known forcefully to representatives in Washington. Democracy is not a spectator sport. If Americans have no appetite for getting involved in yet another mess in the Middle East, legislators should hear about it. President Obama has sensibly pushed to bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end. He has resisted those who wanted earlier intervention in the Syrian civil war. And now he may just need the American people and Congress to keep him from getting more deeply involved in a war that he knows will only further weaken the nation and hurt our interests and our values.

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