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Editorial: Congress must step up on Syria crisis

Published: Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 - 1:18 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013 - 12:47 pm

As commander-in-chief, Barack Obama has decided to take military action against Syria for what he describes as “the worst chemical weapons attack of the 21st century.”

But as president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, Obama declared Saturday that he will ask Congress for authorization to use force. “Our power is rooted not just in our military might, but in our example as a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” the president said.

It is a historic decision, and the right one for our country.

Even as he claimed the authority to act without permission from Congress and without a mandate from the United Nations Security Council, he knows that broader support strengthens his hand and gives him some cover if things go awry.

But Obama is also taking a huge risk.

If Congress refuses to go along, Obama’s hands could be tied. His credibility after drawing the “red line” over the use of chemical weapons could be in tatters, his presidency could be damaged and, most importantly, the global leadership of the United States could be weakened.

Obama need look no further than British Prime Minister David Cameron to see the potential downside after the Parliament on Thursday rejected Cameron’s call to take part on a limited strike on the regime of Bashar Assad.

In his most forceful remarks so far on Syria, Obama made a strong case Saturday that striking Assad’s regime is not only a moral imperative, but in America’s national security interests.

If an attack like this goes unpunished, it could lead to escalating use of chemical weapons, the president said. It could undermine fundamental international rules that are the bulwark against nuclear proliferation, the use of biological weapons and even genocide.

“In a world with many dangers,” Obama said, “this menace must be confronted.”

Clearly, however, he must do far more convincing of skeptical members of Congress and of the American people.

On Friday, the White House released an intelligence assessment that concluded that Assad’s military planned and executed the Aug. 21 attack in a Damascus suburb in which nerve gas killed more than 1,400 people, including more than 400 children. Obama needs to disclose as much additional evidence as possible backing that conclusion.

He acknowledged the obvious – that Americans are weary of war after Iraq and Afghanistan. Polls show little support for another intervention. Even as he spoke from the Rose Garden, anti-war protestors were outside the White House.

While Congress is not scheduled to return from its recess until Sept. 9, an earlier special session may be in the offing.

Obama said Pentagon leaders have assured him that they are ready to strike at any time. He promised again that any action would be limited both in scope and duration and that there would be no “boots on the ground.”

But Obama also said the United States “cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.” Just threatening military action may have already deterred Assad from further attacks.

“I’m ready to act in the face of this outrage,” the president said. “Today, I’m asking Congress to send a message to the world that we are ready to move forward together as one nation.”

Now, it’s up to Congress to overcome petty partisanship, rise to the occasion and have a debate worthy of this momentous decision.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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