Forget the politics. Forget the whip counts. Forget all the overblown theatrics. Forget about what President Obama “has to do” in his speech Tuesday night. What we have to do is listen, think, and then make a decision together, as a nation, about how to respond to a humanitarian atrocity.
Most world leaders and U.S. officials of both parties now agree: on Aug. 21, the Syrian government gassed its own people, murdering more than 1,400 men, women, and innocent children in an especially gruesome way. For months, diplomatic efforts to respond through the United Nations have been blocked by Russia, an ally of the Syrian government that has used its Security Council veto power to prevent the release of even a press statement condemning the monstrous gas attack. On Monday, Russia hinted it may finally change course and help us force Syria to turn over its chemical weapons. This is obviously an ideal outcome worth pursuing, but if Syria refuses and diplomacy fails again, the United States remains the one nation with the means to reduce Bashar al-Assad’s ability and willingness to carry out even larger, deadlier poison gas attacks with the tons of chemical weapons that remain in his arsenal.
The question for America is whether we will.
The United States in 2013 is a nation not just weary of a war we had to fight, but a war that we didn’t. A big reason I first went to work for Obama was because he had the judgment and political courage to oppose a full-scale invasion of Iraq at a time when so many other Republicans and Democrats too easily supported it.
But what I came to admire even more over the years was Obama’s clear-eyed, careful, thoughtful approach to issues of war and peace. Certainly these were topics he had spent plenty of time contemplating prior to his presidency, but once in office they took on a weightier meaning for a commander in chief who quickly learned what it felt like to sign letter after letter to the families of the fallen.
No one was more surprised by the decision of the Nobel Committee in 2009 than Obama, and no one took the responsibility of responding to the honor more seriously. In the eight years we worked together, it was the earliest he ever started thinking about a speech and the first time he directed the research process. He wanted to read everything Augustine and Aquinas had ever written about just war theory. He asked for the works of philosophers and generals; presidents and past laureates; King and Gandhi. And with the help of very few advisers outside of Ben Rhodes, his current deputy national security adviser, and Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Obama constructed a speech with these passages:
“There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified…Evil does exist in the world. A nonviolent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
“…More and more, we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government, or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region. I believe that force can be justified on humanitarian grounds, as it was in the Balkans, or in other places that have been scarred by war. Inaction tears at our conscience and can lead to more costly intervention later.
“When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma—there must be consequences. Yes, there will be engagement; yes, there will be diplomacy—but there must be consequences when those things fail…I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: the belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice.”
Obama could say these same words about Syria on Tuesday night. For nearly 100 years, the international community has drawn a red line at the use of chemical weapons because they indiscriminately kill civilians and children on a massive scale. The attack on Aug. 21 killed more people than any one conventional attack launched by either side throughout the entire civil war.
With targeted strikes that do not require American troops to enter Syria, the United States military can limit Assad’s ability to carry out these disproportionately large civilian atrocities again. In doing so, we would also degrade his ability to carry out more conventional attacks. And our actions could even speed Assad’s ultimate departure from power and the negotiated settlement that is the only lasting solution to this conflict.
That is the limited but consequential objective of a strike in Syria. By requesting that Congress pass a narrow resolution that does not allow for an open-ended engagement or American boots on the ground, Obama has essentially asked that his own power be restricted, itself a rare and welcome decision to restore a democratic balance on issues of war and peace. No one is pretending that our involvement will end this conflict. No one is pretending that force alone can achieve peace. No one is pretending to know who will fill the vacuum in Syria if Assad is driven from power or what their intentions may be. And these questions will remain regardless of our decision to strike.
What we do know is that at least once, a dictator has used internationally banned chemical weapons to kill thousands of civilians in a single attack. We know that if Assad does not face a single consequence for his actions, he has no reason not to keep using poison gas again and again. And we know that if the United States does not act to stop him, no one else will.
I don’t like war, or the risks that accompany even the most limited conflicts. But I cannot un-see the images played on CNN over the weekend of little children gasping for their last breath while an invisible poison destroys their nervous system. The world is a messy, complicated place, and I know we don’t always have the ability, or frankly the will, to stop bad things from happening everywhere, all the time.
But years from now, when the history is written about the time a madman gassed hundreds of children while the whole world watched in horror, I want to be able to tell my own kids that I was part of a country that did something about it; that we acted to save more innocents from this special kind of horror, in Syria and in other places where such evil is contemplated. I say this not because I’m a supporter of Obama’s but because I support the words he wrote in accepting the solemn obligation to pursue peace in a dangerous world:
“Inaction tears at our conscience.”
“Peace requires responsibility.”