Let’s start with the givens. We know the deployment of chemical weapons is not just a “red line” drawn by President Obama. Their use has been universally condemned, especially since the end of World War I. Today, 189 nations have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons — and calls for their destruction by those countries in possession. Israel and Myanmar have signed, but not yet ratified, the CWC. Syria’s not a signator.
According to the White House, we also know without a doubt that chemical weapons have recently been deployed at least twice against Syria’s civilian population. First, in April, with a loss of 100 to 150 lives; and more recently, on August 21, in the suburbs of Damascus, with a death toll estimated as high as 1,400. And we know that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is responsible. Syrian rebels have neither access to chemical weapons stockpiles nor the missile launchers or helicopters necessary to deploy them.
To which, add one more given: Even most anti-war doves like me recognize that some response to a country’s use of chemical weapons is necessary. Otherwise, the Chemical Weapons Convention means nothing. And al-Assad and other dictators would interpret the civilized world’s inaction as a green light to use poisonous gases, in ever greater quantities, again and again.
So far, so clear. But here’s where it gets murky: Who should respond? And how? Several factors complicate that decision, starting with the fact that the American people have little appetite for another military excursion in the Middle East. And you can’t blame ‘em. We’ve finally ended the war in Iraq. We’re winding down the war in Afghanistan. Enough’s enough. The problem is, given the certainty of a Russian veto on the UN Security Council, we can’t count on the United Nations to take the lead. So, once again, as the world’s only superpower, if any action is to be taken, responsibility rests with the United States — in partnership, one hopes, with as many of our allies as Obama can round up.
Still, before making any decision, there are other complications. Some experts, like retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, warn that a quick military strike could have unintended consequences, like a Syrian attack on neighboring Israel or Turkey. We must be prepared for that possibility. Yet even without wider repercussions, there’s no guarantee of success. Ask Bill Clinton, who ordered four so-called “surgical strikes” during his presidency: against Iraq in 1993, Afghanistan and Sudan in 1998 and Serbia and Kosovo in 1999. Those attacks did not force Saddam Hussein, al-Qaida or Slobodan Milosevic to change their ways. A cruise missile strike today might not deter Bashar al-Assad, either. And it will certainly not determine the outcome of Syria’s civil war.
There’s also that sticky matter of Congress. Under Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war. Short of war, under the War Powers Act, a president may engage our military in response to an attack on the United States, but must notify Congress within 48 hours and secure congressional authorization for any operation lasting more than 60 days. To fully comply with the law, President Obama should call a Special Session of Congress for a full public debate on Syria before making a decision.
Finally, and most importantly, the Obama administration must lay before Congress and the American people the intelligence it has gathered that chemical weapons were used, and used under orders of President Bashar al-Assad. And, unlike the pack of lies Colin Powell presented to the UN to justify George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, that evidence must be air-tight.
I told you it wouldn’t be easy to add all those elements together: a limited air strike, against a military target, with minimum civilian casualties, in partnership with our allies, with the full support of Congress, and based on rock-solid information. But that’s the challenge facing President Obama.
Put that package together and Obama will have the support of the American people.
Anything less, and a strike against Syria will be nothing but one more show of military might that makes a lot of noise and makes us feel good, but accomplishes nothing. And might even make things worse.
Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show.