Break the silence on Syria

Two years into a civil war that has cost more than 100,000 lives, the United States is now “responding” to a violation of an “international norm.” Yes, striking Syria after its president launched chemical weapons attacks against civilians is our way of saying that there are still “norms” internationals leaders are expected to adhere to — even murderers in the Middle East in 2013.

Not much about the Obama administration’s response to the Syrian war — let alone the entire Arab Spring, a maturing nuclear weapons program in Iran or a bloody crackdown by Egypt’s military following a coup the U.S. government supported but refused to name — has been based on norms. But after wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left too many Americans questioning both the sacrifice and outcomes of these military involvements, the Obama administration has made it clear that long-term military entanglements are a thing of the past. Surgical attacks are the beginning — and end — of our response.

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The United States waited until chemical weapons were used to strike because Obama’s “red line” is this: You can kill your people with a conventional arsenal, but not with weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry characterized the gas attack as a “moral obscenity,” words not yet introduced when the death toll of the civil war had passed 100,000.

While the American people have yet to hear from the president about why Syria should be attacked as a means to “punish, deter and degrade,” Obama and his top advisers have been furiously phoning leaders around the world and lawmakers on Capitol Hill to ensure the strikes receive as much support as possible. And while several key lawmakers said they have been consulted by administration officials, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement Wednesday characterizing the consultation with members thus far as having “not reached the level of substantive consultation.” 

Boehner also urged the president to address the nation directly to build public and congressional support for any military action. “Having determined your red line has been crossed, should a decisive response involve the use of the United States military, it is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action — which is a means, not a policy — will secure US objectives and how it fits into your overall policy.

There is bipartisan agreement, and consensus with the president, in opposing U.S. ground troops in Syria. But there is far-reaching criticism on the administration’s “tailored” response in both parties, by those who fear the late and limited strike on Assad’s capability not only won’t work but could worsen the conflict and our waning influence in the region. Many fear the splintered opposition would be more dangerous than the Assad regime, with the influence of al Qaeda on the rebel forces. And Sen. John McCain, who urged an earlier response, said strikes at this point would come too late to alter Assad’s behavior.

Obama has made clear he will avoid any long-term engagement in any Middle East conflict, and told CNN last week that as president he must “think through what we do from the perspective of, ‘What is in our long-term interests?” Perhaps our interests have changed, or our ability to act on our interests has changed, or a combination of both. But Obama’s response surely doesn’t inform the Syrians, or Americans, just what our long-term interests are.


Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.