President Obama made a politically risky but otherwise prudent move Saturday by deciding to seek congressional approval for a strike on Syria.
The administration has not yet presented a persuasive case to the American people and their representatives in Washington that a U.S. military strike would have the intended effect — to dissuade President Bashar Assad from ever again using chemical weapons to murder and maim his own people. Nor has Obama articulated a broader strategy for containing the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Over the past several days, the administration worked to convince the international community and the American people that Assad was behind the Aug. 23 chemical attack that killed hundreds of civilians in the Sunni-majority suburbs of Damascus, thus crossing President Obama’s “red line” for the second time this year. It was the largest such attack since Saddam Hussein used poison gas to kill 5,000 Kurds in 1988.
But administration officials were addressing skeptical Americans and war-weary allies who remember too well then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 U.N. Security Council dog-and-pony show on Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” The evidence presented that day eventually was discredited, but it was critical in building early support for the war in Iraq.
There is mounting evidence that Assad regime forces – for the second time – used chemicals to kill civilians, including children, but the president gains little by ordering a military response without first attempting to win support from Congress, even if international backing remains elusive.
Obama risks a political defeat similar to that suffered by British Prime Minister David Cameron, who failed to convince Parliament to endorse military action. The president should win approval in the Senate, but a House vote is more difficult to predict.
The attack in Syria was morally reprehensible and the president’s “red line” was crossed, but the civil war in Syria does not pose an imminent threat to this nation. And the limited response being weighed by the Obama administration lost any element of surprise sometime early last week.
As his critics suggest, Obama blinked by deciding not to act without congressional support. But what was lost? The nation will be better served by a full debate.