100,000 are Dead, and Assad Gassed Civilians

President Barack Obama has built his entire political career on upholding the rule of law and opposing illegitimate wars. His military priority has been the extrication of US forces from Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, the potential for gruesome civil war and even failed states was and remains very real. Pres. Obama knows about the strategic mess inherent in such situations, and he has been cautious and also firm in dealing with the military particulars of that threat.

Syria is two years into a gruesome civil war. There are fears that the fall of Assad could lead to a failed state. Barb-throwers suggest that Obama is pushing for military strikes from a lack of understanding of the risks inherent in ousting the Assad regime. That is simply not credible from even a cursory glimpse at history. Others suggest the president has waited too long, from a lack of assertiveness; it is simple enough to say: remember Abbotabad.

There are genuine strategic complications to the Syria situation that were not true of Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Uganda, or even the Bin Laden raid. The Russian Federation has an important naval base on the Syrian coast; their warships are in the region and mobilizing. Iran and the Lebanese faction Hezbollah are both military and strategic allies of the Assad regime. Despite recent peacemaking gestures from Tehran, the Iranian government views an attack on Syria as a direct provocation.

The Constitution of the United States requires a president to ask Congress for the right to take military action against a foreign power. That foundational law has not been much respected in recent decades; Obama’s turning to Congress is a vote for foundational principles of democracy. If the vote fails, and Obama cannot act now, the policy choice will still be a victory for the American people’s right to have a say in whether their government goes to war.

As Jane Harmon, former Congresswoman and now director of the Wilson Center, said on Meet the Press today, “We have had commanders in chief taking unilateral action, and this is much better.”

But there is a central idea that needs to be addressed: some of the president’s critics have been having fun throwing around the excuse that they will oppose military action on the premise of chemical attacks, because “Assad has killed 100,000 people with conventional weapons, and the president did not act on that”. The logic? If Obama didn’t act against those war crimes, will will oppose acting against these. The logic is to spite Obama, or to follow his lead, and abdicate responsibility even as he seeks action.

That is an untenable political logic; to follow that logic is to send one’s legacy down in history as having chosen to stand idle as a megalomaniac dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, using weapons of mass destruction in the process. Rwanda happened; hundreds of nations stood by and watched; Kofi Annan and others sounded the alarm, and the world voted by inaction to permit the genocide. In Kosovo, the Clinton administration showed that airstrikes can prevent a genocide.

It is best, in all cases, to avoid armed conflict; it is best to find negotiated solutions, and favor the security of the innocent, in all cases. The United Nations, through the dysfunctional system of the Security Council, has abdicated responsibility in the protection of civilian lives in Syria. It is right for the United States to refrain from combat except where absolutely necessary.

It is possible to refrain from action here, but there are cases where the moral choice is no longer inaction: 100,000 innocent people have been killed in two years. The Syrian situation is looking increasingly like a factional genocide. Chemical weapons have been used against civilians. It certainly seems like a case where, if war is ever just because it can rescue innocents from catastrophe, action against Assad would be just.

What the United States Congress now faces is the uncomfortable kind of questions faced by those who have authority over military action, like Pres. Obama: On what grounds do we commit to military action in a terrible situation? Is there ever a situation where we should commit to military action which is not already terrible? Should we expend “blood and treasure”—which we could do better to deploy elsewhere—in the name of opposing atrocities? Where else?

And most importantly, the most uncomfortable question of all: Can we speak for the people, and uphold their essential and expressed values, by doing what many of my constituents oppose? Does that confer more or less legitimacy on what I do? Many in Congress are uncomfortable with that predicament. Of course, it is very uncomfortable. But it is part of the job you have agreed to do.

On CNN’s State of the Union Sunday talk show, former Bush adviser and speechwriter David Frum explained it like this: “The line of least resistance for the careerist and uncourageous members of Congress is to vote ‘No’ and hope that the president goes ahead anyway.”

When you are sworn into the United States Congress, you have a say in these matters, and what you decide may determine who lives and who dies. It is a big responsibility, but the complications cannot be resolved by facile rhetorical sniping. If you are a member of the United States Congress, and 100,000 deaths cause you moral upheaval, then you must consider what action will prevent further killing; to date, inaction has not worked.

It is not an easy question, but that doesn’t mean the president should be blamed for following the law and asking Congress to consider the merits. It is how we are supposed to do things in this democracy.

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