What global role should the United States play in the years to come? That's the deeper and more troubling question underlying the debate Congress will have this week as it decides what to do about Syrian President Bashar Assad's chemical attack against his own people.
With Americans disillusioned by intelligence failures in Iraq and chastened by the futility of nation-building in Afghanistan, there's a visceral feeling in the country that we should retreat from global leadership to relieve us of its cost in death and dollars.
But with Russia, Iran and North Korea aggressively challenging our nation's interests and China's influence growing, there would be a price to pay for abdicating our place in the world. If the United States won't lead, morally and militarily, somebody else will. U.S. power and the ability to shape events in our national interests would be diminished.
All of that won't be resolved this week, but those broader concerns make this an important moment of national reflection and personal soul searching as Congress debates whether to authorize the use of force in Syria. There's little doubt that Assad crossed Obama's inprovidently drawn "red line" by using chemical weapons in an August attack that killed an estimated 1,400 people. And it's clear the United Nations cannot respond. Russia would use its Security Council veto to block any resolution authorizing multilateral retaliation. So Assad's brazen violation of international law will go unpunished unless the United States acts.
President Barack Obama is asking Congress for authorization to launch a military strike by air, arguing that no regime should be allowed to gas innocent men, women and children with impunity. The administration says with no reprisal, Assad will be emboldened to use Sarin gas again. Degrading his chemical weapons capability would reduce the risk that they will fall into the hands of terrorists, particularily Hezbollah, which Assad funds in Lebanon. And hitting Assad would put other regimes, such as North Korea and Iran, on notice that developing or using chemical and nuclear weapons would have serious consequences.
But the president shouldn't act without congressional authorization. So when he addresses the nation Tuesday, he has to sway a skeptical public and deeply passionate opponents on both the left and the right.
Here are key concerns:
Can limited air strikes significantly degrade Assad's chemical weapons capacity?U.S. military leaders insist they can and will, but for strategic reasons they are unwilling to telegraph their punches. Obama has to provide as much detail as he can to us, while members of Congress, who are privy to secret briefings, must demand even more specifics.
How many innocent civilians will U.S. bombs kill as we punish Assad for killing innocent civilians? Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, promised Congress "very low collateral damage." If Congress approves a strike Obama will be presented with a variety of military options. He should choose judiciously to minimize civilian deaths. Will a limited attack inflict a cost high enough to persuade Assad not to use chemical weapons again?There's evidence he has used Sarin gas repeatedly, including in March, when 25 people were killed, and then in the August attacks. Obama has not suggested that Assad's chemical weapons capacity can be eliminated. So what will the United States do should he use them yet again?
Will U.S. intervention accelerate progress toward a negotiated end to the Syrian civil war?Assad has shown no inclination to relinquish power, and insurgents have shown no inclination to abandon their fight. Still, a political solution is the preferred endgame. Obama needs to spell out how surgical strikes would help bring that about.
Obama on Tuesday has to convince the world that the atrocities in Syria demand condemnation and that there are moral values that America must uphold.