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Do the Right Thing on Syria

When President Obama decided to delay a military strike against Syria to first obtain Congressional approval, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his usually raucous and unscripted government ministers they needed to stay quiet.

It was a wise move on Netanyahu’s part. Even though Israel has a huge stake in the outcome of the Congressional debate, Netanyahu rightly realized that any hint of Israel lobbying American lawmakers or the public could dangerously backfire in the volatile Middle East.

As Americans, we should feel no such constraints. And no one who reads this page regularly would characterize the Forward as a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government, which we have sometimes criticized strongly.

So we believe it is important for American Jews to state out loud what Israelis are understandably constrained from saying: Congress should work with President Obama to craft a measured but powerful military response to the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, and to ensure as best as it can that even the worst consequences of such an attack are anticipated and, if possible, ameliorated.

We take this stand acknowledging that the president has offered clumsy, confusing, at times contradictory leadership on Syria since the civil war there began two years ago. While from the start it was clear that America faced only a series of bad choices diplomatically and militarily, Obama could have shaped a more consistent message instead of careening from advocating regime change to dialing back U.S. responsibility to then declaring “red lines” without having assembled a workable coalition, either at home or abroad, to back up that threat.

But the August 21 poison gas attacked that killed 1,400 Syrians fundamentally clarified this muddy situation. Chemical warfare presents a far more serious danger than even the most sophisticated conventional weaponry. It is brutal and indiscriminate, a cause of great suffering to the civilians it kills and injures and to the environment it harms — truly a weapon of mass destruction. By now the evidence is convincing that the Assad government unleashed chemical gas in a brazen challenge to international order that cannot go unanswered.

The United Nations should be the international body to respond, but it has sadly proven itself to be ineffectual and irrelevant, once again. Support from allies would be helpful, but as Britain’s cowardly move shows, not to be counted on. If it falls to the United States to uphold the most basic of international human rights conventions — to live in a world without WMDs — then so be it. It is squarely in our national interests to do so.

The attack should be focused on military installations, communications infrastructure, munitions and not on chemical weapons, which would simply poison people in their vicinity. It should be brief and severe, and may need to be repeated if WMDs are used again.

The troubling consequences of such an attack are being widely discussed, as they should, for finding just the right mix of strength, speed and precision will be difficult and by no means assured. Nor is there any guarantee that an American attack won’t result in emboldening Syrian rebels who are decidedly unfriendly toward Western interests, especially with regards to Israel.

But, in the end, the imperative for a forceful response to the use of chemical weapons must trump these hesitancies; failure to do so runs the risk of far more horrendous consequences. President Assad being seen to act with impunity could give a frightening license to Iran and other rogue regimes while leaving our own allies wondering whether they can ever count on the U.S. to stand up for and with them.

The inconsistencies in our policy toward Syria should not prevent a consistent message on the use of weapons of mass destruction. President Obama is right to include member of Congress in this fateful decision, as they share responsibility for upholding our strategic national interests and our moral values.

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