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.

More in Opinion

Editorial cartoons for Saturday, Nov. 18

A sketchy look at the day in politics.… Continue reading

Editorial: Senate Republicans make bigger mess of tax bill

Senate Republicans are using repeal of an Obamacare mandate to win votes for their tax reform bill.

Schwab: At home and abroad, Trump sets low bar for ‘great’

His Asian trip made the U.S. a bit player on the world stage. And the play’s not any better at home.

Does low voter turnout point to apathy toward local politics?

The November voter turnout displayed either burnout or apathy. Either way this… Continue reading

Editorial cartoons for Friday, Nov. 17

A sketchy look at the day in politics.… Continue reading

Gerson: When lies become routine, corruption follows

We are witnessing what happens when conservatives become untethered from morality and religion.

Milbank: Truth is now out — ‘Bernie Bernstein’ broke all scandals

From Watergate to Roy Moore, Bernie robocalled random numbers, offering payouts for false claims.

Ignatius: Saudi prince tries to limit damage from brash moves

The crown prince, known as MBS, is fighting corruption, but taking big chances to combat it.

Harrop: Dems shouldn’t fret over another Hillary investigation

Launching a new witch hunt against Clinton is a sure sign that the heat’s been turned up on Trump.

Most Read