Syria is at once both a haunting human tragedy and a forebodingly complex challenge.
If Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people, against innocent children and other civilians -- and the evidence so far suggests he has and very possibly more than once -- it is an unconscionable crime against humanity and too dangerous a provocation to leave unanswered. How can we as a nation turn our heads from that?
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We think back to the horrors bequeathed by Nazi Germany and how they were fed by appeasement and inaction, of the millions who were gassed while the world stood idle. It is not just the evil of Assad that must be quelled but the evil of other despots who would be emboldened by Assad.
From that standpoint, we greatly sympathize with President Barack Obama's call for a strong but limited military response. But we stop short, at this point, of endorsing one.
From the beginning, the civil war in Syria has been a lose-lose situation for U.S. interests. Multiple possible outcomes, almost none of them good. To be fair, even the best foreign policy would have been severely tested. Unfortunately, America's foreign policy has fallen far short of best.
Elsewhere on this page, Michael Gerson convincingly outlines the long series of mistakes Obama's administration has committed in its run up to a military response. Error after error after error.
It has seemed, for the most part, a sort of strategy of hapless top-of-the-head chatter, as though we believed there would be some sort of a mystical line between talk and reality. The administration has seemed to think that if we simply say Assad "must go," he goes or that if we say Assad "must stop," he stops. Obama drew red lines but then never drew the support needed to enforce them. It strikes us, sadly, as a foreign policy of disturbing naiveté. The administration's performance in this instance has been distressingly unskilled. How do you follow that into war, no matter how limited?
Obama has been oddly ineffective in making the case at home and around the globe. Poignantly, that case appears to exist, presuming the United Nations study affirms the charge that Assad's regime used chemical weapons.
But we agree with Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates who warns against the dangers of unilateral response. The U.S. cannot go it alone. To do so would in a very real way isolate us, not the despot. To do so would make America the untamed brute, not Assad.
If Assad's assault was an affront to the world community, then the world conscience ought to be rallied against it. That should be the charge Congress gives the president:
Build an international coalition. And convince the American public.
So far, President Obama has failed to do either.