President Obama finds himself in a nightmarish situation over whether the U.S. should intervene with military force in the civil war raging in Syria. To a large degree, this is a trap of his own making.
If you set a "red line" and say it's unacceptable for the bad guys to cross that line — and then they do — you had better be prepared to back it up. While it may well be a shrewd and constitutionally appropriate move to seek approval from the U.S. Congress before hitting targets in Syria with air strikes or cruise missiles, it does send in the short run a less than decisive signal that jeopardizes the President's, and therefore the nation's, credibility.
The stakes are unimaginably high. Should the Congress surprise just about everybody and rise above its fractious ways of late, it will support the President's case immeasurably. If they are unable to support the President here, a very bad disaster will get much, much worse. History is being made before our very eyes.
The other point we'd like to make is that it's outrageous that the Russian and Chinese governments have so far escaped any meaningful condemnation from either the United Nations or Middle Eastern governments directly involved in the debacle in Syria for their obstructionist behavior. Had they been willing to support a U.N.-led intervention at an earlier point, much of the catastrophe unfolding in that sad country might well have been averted.
Rather wisely, Mr. Obama has held off from intervening directly in the colossal mess that is Syria today. “No good options” is a phrase that could have been invented to describe the situation there. In the wake of our recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the last thing most Americans would seem to hunger for is another expensive quagmire in that part of world. And yet once again, it appears that if Uncle Sam doesn't act, no one else does, or can.
The potential for miscalculation and unintended consequences from a military strike in retaliation for the Syrian government's shocking and ghastly use of poison gas on its own citizens are almost limitless. Certainly, such a strike, however limited in scope, could backfire in several ways. Strike too hard, and another set of bad guys, this time under the sway of Al Qaeda terrorists, become in charge of the fractured former nation of Syria. Or the Syrian government could lash out at Israel, turning the Middle East into a true cauldron of warfare. Strike without enough wallop to cause real fear among the thugs who run Syria today, and they won't be restrained from using chemical warfare again.
And then there's the Iranian angle, where just as it seemed there was some small possibility of finding a pathway out of a showdown over that nation's designs on acquiring a nuclear capability, which understandably spooks the Israelis to no end, the credibility question surfaces with powerful force. If the Syrians can cross a “red line,” why can't the Iranians?
It would be much better if the opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus was clearly united behind a banner of centrist, secular democratic leaders, but they are not. Here, the enemy of our enemy is not our friend.
Nevertheless, things have reached a point where for both humanitarian and geopolitical reasons, doing nothing is no longer an option. Using poison gas on anyone, be they citizens of their own country, as the Syrian leadership has done — and does anyone seriously think thatthis was the work of the rebel factions? — or even on opposing military forces, has long been considered unacceptable and outside the norms of international law. Even Adolf Hitler, the leader of Nazi Germany during World War II, didn't authorize its use on the battlefield  — although it was employed in their concentration camps as part of the holocaust against European Jewry.To allow a band of criminals like the Assad regime to escape retribution carries consequences far more alarming than the risks such a strike will trigger a new and even more deadly round of fighting in that confused part of the world. We urge the U.S. Congress, and especially Vermont's delegation, to support the President's request for authorization to use military force. Not backing the President at this moment would have grave consequences and hamstring future presidents from action in future crises, which are sure to come.
We are not in favor of the “boots on the ground” approach, which has failed time and time again in the quicksand that is the Middle East.
Ultimately, it is the people over there who will have to decide whether they want an authoritarian or a democratic form of government. But having staked U.S. credibility on the poison gas question, we have to be prepared to walk the walk. It should also be clear Syria is not the new Iraq or Afghanistan. The United Nations was designed to prevent and take action to fix such situations. This disaster once again calls into question its value.