Obama’s Syrian time out

Is there such a thing as a good war or a bad peace?

Twelve years ago, Americans awoke to the horror of mass violence. Sept. 11 was a watershed for the United States and the family of nations. Life before 9/11. Life after.

The challenge for lawmakers is to see the world as it is, a dangerous place. In the United States, values of human rights, of right and wrong, condition the application of power. But power manifests in diplomatic command as much as military authority.

To paraphrase a 20th century theologian, better to be an idealist without illusions than a realist without a conscience.

With Syria, President Obama aspires to be an idealist without illusions. It’s diplomacy with (and this helps) cruise-missile teeth.

“When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory, but these things happened,” the president said in his Tuesday address regarding Syria’s use of chemical weapons. “The facts cannot be denied.”

We need to uphold international norms, the president argued, just as we yearn to stop the bloodshed. The moral line gets crossed — use of chemical weapons against civilians is just cause for a multilateral response — yet military action is morally ambiguous. Innocent people die.

No boots on the ground, the president promised Tuesday. No “prolonged air campaign like Libya or Kosovo.” At the same time, Obama exhibited bravado uncharacteristic of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. “The United States doesn’t do pinpricks,” he said. “Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver.”

The president asked for a delay in a Congressional vote on military action pending a possible resolution, with an enforceable and verifiable relinquishing of Syria’s chemical weapons. That the proposal is shepherded by the Russians is troubling. But the possibility of peace is an all-consuming force.

Writing in Tuesday’s Herald, University of Washington professor Rob Crawford notes, “The laws of war were created in recognition that warring parties use violence without moral restraint.” The value of congressional debate is to hold a mirror to lawmakers and their moral calculus. For strike opponents and supporters alike, the “I’m going to take a poll of my constituents” is recoil-inducing. Public sentiment should inform decision-making, not determine it.

Let Congress use this diplomatic time-out to debate the responsibility to protect, the challenge of humanitarian intervention, and the role of the International Criminal Court. Rather than talking points, lawmakers need to articulate a vision for America’s role in the world. And they need to put it in their own words.

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