Syria in the Crosshairs, All Outcomes Terrible

Whatever Happens, the U.S. Definitely Loses in the End

Bad Options: Barack Obama announces that he will ask Congress for its backing of an attack on Syria. Will the delay make any of his options any more palatable?
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Bad Options: Barack Obama announces that he will ask Congress for its backing of an attack on Syria. Will the delay make any of his options any more palatable?

By J.J. Goldberg

Published September 01, 2013, issue of September 06, 2013.
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Rosh Hashanah, tradition teaches, is the birthday of the world, the mother of all new beginnings. This year, alas, you’d be forgiven for feeling as though it’s more like the end of the world.

If so, it’s somehow fitting that it’s ending right where it began, somewhere east of Eden in the Fertile Crescent, in the land called Syria. The Arabs used to call it Bilad a-Sham, roughly “the land on the left,” or “place of bad luck.” You should only know.

Here’s the trouble: Once the Assad regime unleashed chemical weapons on its civilian population on August 21, violating one of the most fundamental of the modern laws of war, America had no choice but to respond militarily. Unfortunately, our response stands every chance of making things worse rather than better.

Now, some folks say that however bad our options look, we must hold our noses and choose the least bad path. The way things look, though, there is no least bad path. They’re all dreadful.

Let’s examine them one at a time. For starters, to let the atrocity pass without consequences would have been to acknowledge that the international rules of civilized behavior that we’ve so painstakingly constructed over the past century are a dead letter. We’d be sliding back toward the law of the jungle, but with infinitely deadlier tools at our disposal.

Moreover, for America to let the chemical attack slide after having declared it a “red line” would be devastating for our credibility as a superpower. Anything we tried in the coming years, whether restraining Iran and North Korea, pressing for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, confronting Chinese currency manipulation or opposing Brazil’s Amazon deforestation, would be laughed off as cheap talk.

At some point, a nation’s word has to mean something. Congress needs to consider that as it prepares to vote. Particularly congressional Republicans, who supported (and for the most part still support) President Bush’s decision to enter Iraq a decade ago, need to remember what this decision means for America’s standing. It’s not merely the president, whatever they think of him, whose credibility they’re being asked to back up. It’s America’s.

On the other hand, a military response could easily make things worse. Anything less than a shattering blow would tell the Assad regime that it got away with mass murder. At best the regime would learn to calibrate its atrocities more carefully henceforth. At worst it would be emboldened, knowing America isn’t serious and the rebels are on their own. Beyond reinforcing Assad, it would encourage Iran’s worst mischief-making impulses.


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