WHAT OTHERS SAY: On Syria, a horrible but correct decision that America might avoid making

Thursday, September 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Regarding the fast-moving and fluid events surrounding the use of chemical weapons in Syria’s civil war and the proper response to it, some truths:

One, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Two, sometimes luck is the residue of design. And three, there is no limit to the good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit.

On Friday, when the White House announced that President Barack Obama would address the nation Tuesday night on why Congress should consent to U.S. military retaliation, the tide was running strongly against him.

By Tuesday night, when the speech was delivered, the president’s basic goal — to affirm and reinforce the international prohibitions against chemical weapons — seemed within grasp.

Mr. Obama may or may not have had anything to do with that. It may have started with a brief conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin last Friday at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. It may have been a gift from the gods or from Mr. Putin, who might argue there’s no distinction. More likely Mr. Obama’s resolve merged with Mr. Putin’s ambitions to restore Russia as a super-power-broker.

Whoever gets the credit, there is now breathing room. Maybe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Mr. Putin’s hand in his back, is sincere in his willingness to turn over his chemical weapons to international control. Or maybe he’s just playing for time. The matter now rests with the United Nations, where everything takes considerable time. Whatever. The world is better off when matters are left to diplomats, not fire-control officers.

This fact, however, must not be lost: The tragedy in Syria continues. Two million people have fled the country. The refugee crisis is an epic humanitarian disaster. Of the estimated 100,000 civilians who have died in 18 months of fighting, only 1,400 were killed in the sarin gas attacks of Aug. 21. In Syria, there are many ways to die. Only one of them has been put on the back burner.

But gas is different, the president argued Tuesday: “The images from this massacre are sickening, men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off limits, a crime against humanity and a violation of the laws of war.”

Dictators, Mr. Obama said, “depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it because what happened to those people, to those children is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.”

This was the tough part of the president’s challenge, convincing America that this is our problem. Failure to act will encourage Mr. Assad to continue and embolden “other tyrants,” he said. American troops might one day face chemical warfare on battlefields (but not, he stressed, in Syria) “and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.”

And if gas is OK, what about other weapons of mass destruction? What about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?

“This is not a world we should accept,” the president said. “This is what’s at stake.”

He concluded, “Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used.”

Mr. Obama probably didn’t need to make last night’s speech; events had overtaken it. But Americans needed to hear it.

Nor did the president need to consult Congress, but he was right, strategically, politically and constitutionally, to do so.

It’s too easy to go to war; when circumstances allow, a president must seek the broadest possible political and public support — even with a Congress as deeply dysfunctional as this one is.

Besides, when there are no good options, it’s a good idea to spread the responsibility for choosing the least-bad option.

Presidents always have asserted their right to bypass Congress when circumstances demand it — and sometimes when they don’t. But Mr. Obama held his fire after the Aug. 21 attacks and was accused by some of being feckless.

He knew that there was no guarantee that attacking Syria would not make matters worse, perhaps drastically worse. He knew that polls show the American public is against it.

This is no surprise. It takes something on the order of Pearl Harbor or 9/11 — a direct attack on Americans — for the nation to overcome its isolationist streak. Not even Hitler could do it by himself.

That’s why, for all of Mr. Obama’s pleas Tuesday night, heart-wrenching photographs and video of other nations’ dead children are not enough. High-minded arguments about moral responsibility are no match for national xenophobia.

Last week, as members of Congress considered that they might have to vote on this issue, strange coalitions emerged. Anti-war Democrats and isolationist Republicans plus anti-Obama zealots on one side. Militarist Republicans and Democratic loyalists on the other. On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution in favor of a limited military strike. By the weekend, it appeared to be doomed: It polled badly.

Early Monday came the announcement that Mr. Putin had decided to play nice. Russia’s belated decision to get involved — and no one should forget Russia’s and Iran’s culpability in arming and enabling the Assad regime — put Congressional action on hold.

It may yet come to a vote, but Mr. Putin’s change of heart has taken Mr. Obama and Congress off the hook, at least temporarily. If things go south, Congress must support military action. That threat, however clumsily played, created the opportunity that exists today.

For every argument in favor of military intervention there is an equally good argument against it. But Mr. Obama is right: The use of weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations cannot go unanswered.

International law demands it. America’s place on the moral high ground, shaken by its years in Iraq, its human rights violations in its war on terror and its berserk national intelligence excesses, must be restored. It is a decision that defines what kind of people we are.

It is a decision no sane individual wants to make. That’s why the world must hope that the Russians’ word is good. That’s why the United States and its allies at the U.N. must bend every effort to find a diplomatic solution, even if it is not perfect. If the world community can come together on chemical weapons, maybe it can stop a war. Who knows how many doors this can open?

 Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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