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posted: 9/6/2013 5:00 AM

Rallying around a gesture

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In mid-June, the Obama administration said it would begin arming Syrian rebels, partly in response to the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Refugee officials in Jordan measured a large, temporary increase in the number of men crossing back into Syria, led by rumors that AK-47s would be distributed at the border. The guns were, and remain, a mirage.

Especially during a war, policy pronouncements can cause a ripple of unintended effects. In this case, an unfulfilled pledge has disillusioned our natural ally within Syria, the Free Syrian Army, and weakened it in competition with jihadist groups.

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During the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has generally waged a war of words, and then used them casually and clumsily. President Obama declared that Assad "must go" when his departure seemed inevitable -- without a strategy, or even the intention, to achieve this goal when it became difficult. He drew a chemical weapons "red line" that became a well-trodden thoroughfare. The Obama administration revealed details of an imminent military operation, which was promptly repudiated by the parliament of our closest ally, then abruptly postponed. The administration seemed to indicate that United Nations support for a military strike was needed -- before declaring it unnecessary. It seemed to indicate that a congressional endorsement was superfluous -- just before staking everything on securing it.

Obama is inviting members of Congress to share responsibility for a Syrian policy that has achieved little to justify their confidence. In fact, Obama has actively undermined political support for the legislative outcome he currently seeks. For more than five years, he has argued that America is overcommitted in the Middle East and should refocus on domestic priorities. Now he asks other politicians to incur risks by endorsing an approach he has clearly resisted at every stage. Obama attempts to rally the nation around a reluctant exception to his ambivalence. And this exception -- a calibrated punishment for the use of chemical weapons -- seems more of a gesture than a strategy.

Members of Congress have been provided an array of excuses to vote against the authorization of force. And still it would be an act more feckless than anything the president has done.

The formal request for legislative support has transformed a policy debate into a determination of institutional responsibilities. Legislators are not arguing between preferred policy options, as they would on issues such as health care or welfare. They are deciding if they will send the chief executive into the world with his hands tied behind his back. This would be more than the repudiation of the current president; it would be the dangerous weakening of the presidency.

This does not, of course, amount to blanket permission for self-destructive military actions such as attacking China or surrendering to Monaco. But the course Obama contemplates does not fall into such a category. What has been dismissed as "therapeutic bombing" would actually be a military response to the violation of an important international norm. Not every gesture is an empty gesture. And even if this military action were wrong or pointless, it would have to be sufficiently dangerous to justify the gelding of the executive branch on a global stage.

A limited military strike may be symbolic. But for Congress to block that strike would be more than symbolic. It would undermine a tangible element of American influence: the perception that the commander in chief is fully in command.

The refusal to authorize force would be taken as an ideological pivot point. Nations such as China, Russia and Iran would see this as the triumph of a political coalition between the peace party of the left and the rising isolationists of the right. And they would be correct. The strategic calculations of every American enemy and friend would be adjusted in ways that encourage challenge and instability. Prime Minister David Cameron's recent loss of the vote authorizing military action -- the first such repudiation since 1782 -- has weakened Britain as an actor in the world. America should refuse to follow it down.

I would prefer to defend a form of internationalism less conflicted and hesitant than President Obama's. But even so, it is better than the alternative of seriously compromising the credibility of the presidency itself. And those who claim that this credibility has already reached bottom are lacking in imagination.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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