No one can say that President Obama took a straight path to his decision on how America ought to respond to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. There will be time to address the kinks in the road, including the side-of-the-highway abandonment of two cabinet secretaries. What the moment demands is a return to first principles: With the deployment of chemical weapons on Aug. 21 against its own people, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad crossed a line that demands a response. With his decision to secure the approval of Congress before ordering a limited strike on Syria, Obama is making that case to the American people and the world.
After more than 100,000 Syrian deaths, why should the U.S. suddenly feel compelled to respond to 1,429 casualties from a chemical weapons attack? “If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” of a victim of a gas attack in World War I, in the words of the great English poet Wilfred Owen, you’d know the answer. Chemical weapons are different from bullets and bombs. Indiscriminate tools of terror, they cause horrific, painful, and often lingering deaths, particularly in the case of modern nerve gases such as sarin and VX. If U.S. figures turn out to be correct, the death toll in Ghouta on Aug. 21 was higher by a factor of about 10 than a bad day of casualties from conventional weapons during this conflict, and a distressing proportion of the dead were children. Once delivered, these munitions are at the whim of the wind and can pose an environmental hazard for decades.
Such characteristics help explain why governments have been working to ban their use since at least 1925, when the Geneva Protocol prohibiting the first use of chemical and biological weapons was signed. Ghouta was shocking in part because it was an anomaly. Saddam Hussein’s use of nerve gas against Iranian troops and Kurdish civilians in the 1980s has been one of the few deployments of such weapons by any state. Unconscionably, the U.S. protected Hussein from punishment, just as Russia is protecting Assad now, and Syrians are paying the price for that U.S. complicity.
After Hussein’s atrocity, the U.S. eventually supported the much tougher Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997 and banned the production, stockpiling, preparation, and use of chemical weapons. Since the treaty came into effect, 79 percent of declared chemical weapons have been destroyed worldwide, reducing the likelihood that they fall into the wrong hands. Only five countries—Syria is one—have failed to sign.
Safeguarding this success, and the international norm that it upholds, is as much in the national interest as the 74-26 ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention by the Senate. The question for U.S. legislators now isn’t how missile strikes on Syria will affect the fighting in that country, but whether the chemical weapons ban they ratified 16 years ago is worth enforcing. The answer is yes.
Deterring Assad from using chemical weapons again is not the same as jumping hip-deep into Syria’s civil war. In making its case, the administration needs to help skeptical members of Congress unravel the issue of chemical weapons from regime change. Failure to make that distinction crystal clear was a crucial factor in the Aug. 29 defeat of Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempt to secure the same approval in the U.K. Parliament.
Obama’s gamble for congressional support looks a little better now that House Speaker John Boehner has announced his backing. Any retaliatory strike that proceeds on that basis will carry more legitimacy and moral force. And given the strike’s limited goals and U.S. surveillance and targeting capabilities, the delay won’t blunt the strike’s deterrent impact. It also gives the administration an opportunity to rally foreign support, at the Group of 20 meeting starting on Sept. 5 in Russia and elsewhere.
The administration’s zigzagging on Syria has been a case study in what not to do. U.S. credibility is now on the line. U.S. allies such as Israel need to know that they can count on a strong executive to resolutely, and quickly, uphold U.S. pledges on security. They also need to know that there are times when presidents are justified in acting without congressional approval. Syria need not be a blanket precedent.
What about the aftershocks from any Syrian strike? Would Assad, back against the wall, return fire? It’s possible, but the Syrian leader has been nothing if not calculating. He has not, for instance, retaliated against Israel for earlier air raids. Assad’s supporters (Russia and Iran) and his enablers (China) would be wise to recognize that a tit-for-tat cycle could quickly spiral out of control and do their best to forestall it.
If the world’s strongest power fails to defend the hard-earned prohibition against the use of chemical weapons, then don’t expect anyone else to, either. The best move now is for Obama to muster every gram of persuasion, focus his nation’s and the world’s attention on the global need to prevent these weapons from being used and, yet again, build a coalition of the willing.