Syrian Bashar al-Assad must be grateful that President Barack Obama has taken so long to mobilize a strike against Syria. It buys Assad time to relocate potential targets and deploy troops out of the likely line of fire.
Nonetheless, Americans also should be grateful for this careful slow walk toward such a monumental decision. We are better off sacrificing part of the element of surprise than rushing into an attack without laying the groundwork first.
Even Obama’s inner circle allegedly was surprised by his decision last week to seek the approval of Congress before launching an attack. Although he already is persuaded by the evidence that Assad is guilty of using poison gas to kill more than 1,400 Syrians, including hundreds of children, and that the regime should be held accountable, he also is convinced that the support of Congress would bolster his case.
While the appeal to Congress is ideological, it also is tactical. It buys the president more time to bring allies on board, to amass evidence gathered by UN weapons inspectors and, perhaps most crucially, to build public support on the part of skeptical Americans.
Demanding a debate in Congress also will force accountability on the part of elected officials in both parties. Rather than simply sniping at the president’s policy, members of the House and Senate will have to go on record, voting up or down on the strike.
Obama noted that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff indicated to him that “our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.” The top brass might be giving the president the assessment he wants to hear, but, again, caution and deliberation should trump speed in this case.
We have seen the results of the rush to war in Iraq with imaginary evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Obama has pledged that there would be “no boots on the ground” in an attack on Syria, but carefully building the case for even a limited strike is crucial to its long-term success.
We think – assuming the evidence that Assad used sarin gas on his own people is legitimate – that a punitive strike is a legitimate, even necessary response. As Secretary of State John Kerry said, there is a danger in doing nothing in the face of actions that defy international sanctions.
Obama argues that Assad’s murderous rampage presents a serious danger to U.S. national security because “it risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemcials weapons.” He said it also “endangers our friends and partners along Syria’s borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq” and risks the spread of the use of chemical weapons, especially by terrorists.
The administration, we think, already has established a sound rationale for a strike against Syria. But seeking authorization for what amounts to a blank check from Congress that would allow him to take whatever action he deems necessary goes to far.
This might be an opening feint, a bargaining tactic on the part of the president. But it will be up to Congress, if it gives the go-ahead for an attack, to set limits on how far the U.S. military can go – including a prohibition on the use of infantry and a time limit on the operation.
War-weary Americans are rightfully reluctant to see the nation bogged down in another conflagration in the Middle East. But they might be less hesitant to support a limited strike designed to send a message to Assad – and other nations in the region, Iran in particular – that weapons of mass destruction won’t be tolerated and that the U.S. will make good on its threats of retaliation.
But members of Congress on both sides of the aisle oppose even a so-called surgical strike against Syria. It is uncertain whether the president can rally the votes to approve any action.
We can’t be sure what Obama will do if Congress refuses to approve an attack. We hope that’s a decision he won’t have to make.