Congress returned to Washington this week with a full plate of contentious issues. The most immediately pressing was President Obama’s request for congressional approval to carry out limited surgical strikes in Syria against the regime of Bashar al Assad, responding to his use of chemical weapons to attack Syrian civilians, which killed, in gruesome fashion, 1,429 people, including 426 children.
Most Americans, including a large majority in Northern Virginia, oppose U.S. military intervention in the Syrian conflict (my calls are running 93% to 7% against). I can understand their deep concern. The Bush Administration deliberately misled the public in seeking authorization for war in Iraq. That conflict, and the challenges we’ve faced in Afghanistan, have left a war-weary public, distrustful of any effort to engage militarily elsewhere in the world, particularly in the Middle East. It’s shameful, the money spent on the Iraq War, especially given that the result was a country more aligned with Iran than the U.S. That money could and should have been used for nation-building here at home. And first and foremost, the lives of American soldiers lost in both conflicts is heart breaking and at least with regard to Iraq, inexcusable.
But the situation in Syria is very different. Failure to stop Assad from using chemical weapons would be something we would deeply regret, allowing the use of chemical weapons to become a new norm of war fighting and increasing the threat that these attacks could one day be used against future generations of Americans.
What the President has been talking about is not war. It’s limited missile strikes, designed to punish Assad, damage his military capability, and deter him from using chemical weapons again in the future. There is ample precedent for such actions. Presidents Reagan and Clinton both used their authority as President to launch limited strikes to achieve positive foreign policy outcomes. President Clinton essentially ended the atrocities in Kosovo and Bosnia through the use of military strikes. The biggest regret of his presidency, he has stated, was not using military force to curtail the Rwandan genocide.
In recent days, the situation has changed dramatically. Russia has agreed, with Syria’s approval, to facilitate the securing of their chemical weapons arsenal in exchange for an agreement that the U.S. will not launch a strike. In this case, the fear of U.S. military action has pushed the Russians to finally engage constructively in this conflict. For the past two and a half years, the Russians have stymied every effort at the U.N. Security Council to stop Assad’s atrocities against his own people.
This new plan has my support. As an adamant, vocal opponent of the Iraq War, I believe deeply that the use of military force should be a last resort after diplomatic efforts have been exhausted. If the Russians and Syrians are true to their word, and Assad’s use of chemical weapons stops, the long standing international norm against the use of chemical weapons will have been upheld and no further direct U.S. military involvement is necessary. If the Russian intercession proves to be merely a ploy to buy time, forestalling international action while Assad gains ground on the battlefield through the further deployment of chemical weapons, I would be in support of military action.