Congress should support Obama in punishing Assad

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Beyond a reasonable doubt, the forces of Syria’s Bashar Assad used chemical weapons on a large scale and should be punished. But the case isn’t cut and dried.

Sometimes, standing on principle doesn’t get you very far. The problem is, which principle? The norm forbidding use of chemical weapons, the norm of restraint in use of military force and the norm of upholding international law are in conflict.

If you’re sure you know what’s right in this case, you haven’t thought it through.

I don’t criticize President Barack Obama for being oppressed by these complexities, as he seems to be: Better that than a leader who thinks it’s all so simple. I wish he would make decisions faster and pitch a more confident case for the course he has chosen, but he’s not wrong to see this as a difficult choice.

The choice is between a limited punishment strike or softer censure such as jawboning, sanctions and indictment of Assad under international law.

Choosing not to use force would weaken the norm against chemical weapons. Those milder ways of expressing disgust would still be available, so the norm wouldn’t be destroyed — but it would be eroded. Preventing that is both morally right and valuable to the U.S. and the world. But how valuable? And at what cost?

The wider the support for any action, the more effective it would be in upholding the norm. In this case, time isn’t critical, so Obama (doubtful as one may be about his motives) is right to look for the broadest possible backing at home and abroad.

You can’t dismiss the lack of support among U.S. allies or among U.S. citizens. If Britain isn’t willing to join airstrikes against Assad, that in itself undermines the chemical-weapons taboo.

The same would be true for punitive attacks that weren’t supported in Congress or across the country. Remember, the aim isn’t just to damage Assad militarily, which the U.S. could do without allies or congressional approval, but to express a moral consensus.

If that consensus turns out not to exist — or if it exists in theory but is spineless in practice — the case for action falters. We’ll have discovered that the taboo against chemical weapons was so much posturing.

Striking Syria even if Congress says no would be a remarkable gamble. It would also be less potent (because the norm would have been eroded in any event) and on balance unwise.

Obama was wrong to say that chemical weapons were a “red line” in Syria without being sure he meant it. Making threats you aren’t ready to carry out is dumb.

Would failing to attack Syria make Obama’s promise to stop Iran getting nukes less credible? I doubt it. An Iran with nuclear weapons is vastly more threatening to U.S. interests than a Syria willing to use chemical weapons on its own people, and deterring it is a far more challenging prospect.

No, the core of the case for action, so long as Obama can win sufficient support, lies in upholding the moral prohibition. And the valid case against turns not on legality or credibility but on the risk of unintended consequences.

All being well, airstrikes could achieve their goal at little cost, deflect Assad from using chemical weapons again and make other morally bankrupt regimes think twice. But they would also cause collateral damage and kill innocent civilians.

It’s conceivable that Assad would reap a propaganda advantage. He could start using chemical weapons even more aggressively, daring the U.S. to respond again — knowing that escalation might carry Obama into an outright war the U.S. doesn’t want.

Whether the U.S. intends it or not, airstrikes might swing the civil war against Assad and lead his regime to collapse — with results that would be good or bad for most Syrians, and for the U.S. and its allies, depending on who takes over.

I think the taboo is worth defending, and the prize worth the risk. I hope Congress agrees.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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