US must send strong message on chemical weapons

America’s standing in the world, personified by America’s president, is directly related to maintaining a semblance of order and stability in the global system. Whether we in the United States like it or not, leaders and people of countries around the world look to, and often seek, America’s leadership in resolving international and regional crises and in responding to humanitarian catastrophes — both man-made and natural.

The chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 innocent Syrian men, women and children in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21 was a horrific, despicable act. Watching the footage of the victims of this heinous act engenders revulsion and reminds us of the horrors of the gas chambers 70 years ago. The world cannot sit idly by again when an atrocity such as this occurs.

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Nor can my former colleagues in Congress. To paraphrase the secretary of State’s often-repeated argument, inaction in the face of such a bold-faced, egregious violation of international norms and human decency is not an option for the United States or the international community. As John Kerry said in London on Monday, inaction “send(s) Iran and Hezbollah and Assad a congratulatory message, ‘You guys can do what you want.’ ”

The joint statement on Syria issued by 11 countries at the Group of 20 meeting last week pointed out, “The evidence clearly points to the Syrian government being responsible for the attack, which is part of a pattern of chemical weapons use by the regime.”

Members of Congress have seen the evidence and have not disputed it.

As the statement issued at the G-20 also declared, “The use of chemical weapons anywhere diminishes the security of people everywhere.”

This, too, is irrefutable. If there are no serious, meaningful consequences for the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons, what would deter other bad actors around the world, state and non-state, from launching chemical weapons attacks against their perceived enemies, including — and especially — Americans?

Human suffering will be enormous and the world order will be in tatters unless there is a strong international response that sends a clear message that the kind of atrocity we saw in Syria can never be repeated.

Those who perpetrated these crimes against humanity must be held accountable. And again, like it or not, it is up to the United States to lead the campaign to hold the perpetrators accountable. President Obama has pledged to do just that, and has asked Congress to be his partner in this absolutely essential effort. just that, and has asked Congress to be his partner in this absolutely essential effort.

What does America stand for if not this?

After World War I, a war-weary United States thought it could withdraw from foreign entanglements, especially in Europe. We know what followed 20 years later. After Iraq and Afghanistan, many in a war-weary United States today similarly believe — or hope — that we can avoid foreign interventions, especially in the Middle East. But chemical weapons use, especially emanating from that region, is a game-changer, that sooner or later will reach America’s shores if left unchecked. With the world now interconnected, with terrorism, extremism and violent non-state actors increasing, we cannot afford to give any signal that such weapons are in any way acceptable.

The president, secretary of State and many other administration officials have explicitly described the military action being planned as limited, with its goal being to “prevent and deter the use of chemical weapons and degrade Assad’s capacity to carry out future CW attacks.”

This is not a partisan issue. Just as Democrats and Republicans have joined together under Democratic and Republican presidents alike to authorize the use of force when it was in our national interest to do so, the gravity of this challenge requires the same bipartisan resolve.

Perhaps the credible threat of force will allow diplomacy to reach a verifiable and effective removal of chemical weapons. In this context as well, America’s adversaries need to know our country speaks with one voice and is united.

Levine served in the House of Representatives from 1983 to 1993 and sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is currently a member of the Israel Policy Forum Advisory Council.