The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution authorizing military action in Vietnam was built on a false report. So, too, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the pretext for invading Iraq. Brave soldiers. Hapless politicians.
What, then, when there's a moral imperative, the commission of crimes against humanity? Presupposing the Syrian government used sarin gas against its own people -- a supposition that independent observers confirm -- a multilateral response (read: not just the United States) is warranted. "Response" is a euphemism for inflicting harm. People will die.
You can't unscramble the egg, which is why the Obama administration needs to game-out all of the day-after questions. What happens after cruise missiles hamstring the regime's command and control? Will the United States enforce a no-fly zone? After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are Americans willing to spill more blood and treasure in the Middle East?
Hence, the pre-strike questions: The United States must have irrefutable proof that Assad was responsible (governments lie, intelligence fails.) We must work in common cause with our allies. And we need to weigh the irony of history, that Assad could be replaced by another murdering ogre.
"We gather testimony, we investigate and detail war crimes because we are morally bound to do so," writes James Dawes in his new book, "Evil Men." Dawes interviews war criminals from the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45.) The truth of what happened, of unspeakable crimes against humanity, must be recorded.
"Counterfactual" history imagines what-if scenarios. What if the allies bombed the tracks leading to Auschwitz or Auschwitz itself? There also is the we're-no-innocents argument, as new details emerge this week about United States' complicity in Iraq's use of chemical weapons against Iran in 1988.
As Dawes writes, we are morally bound to detail war crimes. That's what vital democracies do. Past sins don't preclude action against Syria.
A military strike by the United States and its allies ideally will prevent the Syrian regime from again using chemical weapons. That is the mission. Window-dressing punishment or quagmire? No.
We take morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote. Putting American service members and civilians in harm's way is morally hazardous. Preventing the use of chemical weapons, of crimes against humanity, is a moral imperative.
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