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Our terrible dilemma: the options with Syria 

Let me think out loud again, if you will, about Syria.

Russia's proposal to put Syria's chemical weapons under international control offers some hope. But given Vladimir Putin's lack of initiative previously, this feels more like a delaying tactic. If that's the case? President Obama has told us what he thinks we should do. Now members of Congress will make their own decision. And the rest of us have a responsibility to speak up.

So, like a lot of Americans, I'm trying to weigh the risks of an attack against the risks of not attacking. I worry. And I wrestle with my conscience. And I'm still torn.

There are numerous, and compelling, arguments against an attack.

1) Innocent people are likely to be killed, however "limited" our attacks may be. Is our action worth the loss of their lives – and the certain anger that will result?

2) Military action will be expensive, and we face great needs at home.

3) It's unclear what a limited attack would accomplish.

"A 'punishment' air strike is a joke," Kevin Drum wrote recently in Mother Jones, "little more than a symbol of helplessness to be laughed off as the nuisance it is."

"If we want to change Assad's behavior," Drum wrote, "we'll have to declare war on him."

4) We don't know what will happen next.

There's no guarantee that Bashar al-Assad won't use chemical weapons again. Then what will we do? If he attacks our warships, then what?

Nor do we know what Iran will do. Late last week the Wall Street Journal, quoting unnamed US officials, reported that US intelligence officials have evidence that Iran is urging militants in Iraq to attack the US embassy "and other US interests" in Baghdad if we attack Syria. (Iran denied the report.)

Another concern: Bob Dreyfuss, writing in The Nation, warns that the US would be attacking an important ally of Iran "at the exact wrong moment, given Iran's newfound moderate tone and a new president, Hassan Rouhani, who appears to be looking for an end to the confrontation over Iran's nuclear program."

An attack, Dreyfuss writes, would undermine Rouhani and strengthen Iranian hardliners.

Attack supporters like John McCain want to do more than just send a message to Assad. They want him out of power. But if that's the result of an attack, we don't know what will happen in that divided country afterward.

"The hard truth," writes Brookings Fellow Jeremy Shapiro, "is that the United States does not have the power to end the suffering of the Syrian people. It can, with great effort and violence, topple a heinous regime in a country like Syria, but what comes next is beyond the American capacity to control or even predict."

Many commentators have compared the situation in Syria to that in Kosovo where, after a long period of international condemnations and diplomatic attempts, NATO troops put an end to the terrorism of Slobodan Milosevic.

But, says Michael Tomasky on The Daily Beast, "There's one massive difference between Kosovo and Syria: Milosevic didn't have a major regional power watching his back."

5) The risk that we'll get drawn into a much broader conflict is enormous.

In his much-publicized letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee in July, Joint Chiefs Chairman John Dempsey warned about "unintended consequences of our action."

"Once we take action," he said, "we should be prepared for what comes next. Deeper involvement is hard to avoid."

"The one thing we should learn is you can't get a little bit pregnant," retired Marine General Anthony Zinni told the Washington Post last month. "If you do a one-and-done and say you're going to repeat it if unacceptable things happen, you might find these people keep doing unacceptable things. It will suck you in."

If that happens, the legacy of this president, sadly, could be a quagmire in a very volatile part of the world.

6) While the president says that Assad's use of chemical weapons is so abhorrent that it demands a response, we have a peculiar history to be taking the high road.

Former Reagan administration official David Stockman was in a fair rage in his Daily Beast article recently: "By the president's own statements," Stockman wrote, "the proposed attack is merely designed to censure the Syrian regime for allegedly visiting one particularly horrific form of violence on its own citizens.

"Well, really? After having rained napalm, white phosphorous, bunker-busters, drone missiles, and the most violent machinery of conventional warfare ever assembled upon millions of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodians, Serbs, Somalis, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, Yemeni, Libyans, and countless more, Washington now presupposes to be in the moral sanctions business?"

Shane Harris and Matthew Aid's article in Foreign Policy magazine adds to the list: In 1988, the Reagan administration knew that Saddam Hussein was planning to attack Iran with chemical weapons. It not only did nothing to stop him, it provided intelligence to help him with the attacks.

We seem to oppose the use of chemical weapons, in other words, when it suits our purpose.

7) While there's apparently little question that chemical weapons have been used, the public hasn't seen hard evidence linking the Assad regime to the atrocity in a Damascus suburb. And there are unconfirmed reports that the rebels, too, have used chemical weapons.

The public can't be privy to every bit of classified information that the administration has. But some members of Congress who have heard the administration's intelligence briefings say they aren't persuaded that there's firm proof of Assad's guilt. The administration's public, unclassified summary of its intelligence findings cites such information as "intelligence pertaining to the regime's preparations for this attack and its means of delivery, multiple streams of intelligence about the attack itself and its effect, our post-attack observations, and the differences between the capabilities of the regime and the opposition."

The intelligence summary refers to a "high confidence assessment" – "the strongest position that the US Intelligence Community can take short of confirmation," it says. For some members of Congress, "high confidence" isn't good enough. In a Times op-ed article last weekend, Florida Representative Alan Grayson said that the administration refuses to show members of Congress the intelligence reports and other documentation that back up the summary.

And yet: a justification for an attack

Some attack supporters argue that the credibility of the president and the country are at stake. That's a terrible justification; human lives are an extravagant, and immoral, sacrifice for the reputation of a president or a nation.

But it isn't just the credibility of Obama and the United States that is at stake. The credibility of international law is at stake. This is an international concern. Action ought to be taken by the United Nations, but the UN faces the same kind of gridlock that we are watching in our own national government. That Russia and China are able to hold international law hostage shouldn't paralyze the rest of the world.

Which brings us to the good reason for attacking: the need to respond to the use of chemical weapons, to try to uphold international law and discourage the further use of those weapons in Syria and elsewhere – and to discourage the use of nuclear weapons.

It seems clear that what Obama wants to do violates international law, which prohibits this kind of attack unless the United Nations Security Council authorizes it. In an op-ed piece in the Times last week, Yale law professors Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro argued that this law "may be even more important to the world's security – and America's – than the ban on the use of chemical weapons."

Violations of international law are not unknown. We violated international law ourselves with our action in Kosovo. These things "add up," Hathaway and Shapiro argue, "and each one makes it harder to hold others to the rules."

If we attack Syria without Security Council authorization, Hathaway and Shapiro write, "it will be difficult, if not impossible, to stop others from a similar use of force down the line."

But I don't think it's easy to decide which poses the greater risk, to the world's security and our own: acting in the face of a chemical-weapons slaughter, or standing by. How do we predict which will have the least bad results?

I'm wavering, because the arguments against an attack are valid and strong. But Obama's argument, that the use of chemical weapons cannot go unanswered, is compelling.

Bullets and bombs are bad enough, whether they're used in wars between nations or in a civil war. But chemical weapons are used in full knowledge that they will harm civilians. One of their purposes is to terrify and intimidate civilians. There is no conceivable justification for a government to turn that kind of horror loose on its own people or anybody else. That's why their use has been against international law since 1925.

On the New York Times' Opinionator blog, Timothy Egan noted a factor that is unfortunately having a big influence on the debate: "Bush hangover."

George W. Bush's action in Iraq, Egan wrote, "gave every world leader, every member of Congress a reason to keep the dogs of war on a leash."

"The isolationists in the Republican Party are a direct result of the Bush foreign policy," said Egan. "A war-weary public that can turn an eye from children being gassed — or express doubt that it happened — is another poisoned fruit of the Bush years. And for the nearly 200 members of both houses of Congress who voted on the Iraq war in 2002 and are still in office and facing a vote this month, Bush shadows them like Scrooge's ghost."

Decisions like this one have to be based on hard analysis of facts and moral principles, not on cloudy emotions and fearful over-reaction. We have to learn the lessons of history, but our recognition and understanding of past mistakes can't paralyze us.

"I am informed by Vietnam," John Kerry wrote on the Huffington Post. "And I am informed by Iraq, not imprisoned by it, either."

President Obama is right: He did not draw the red line about Assad's use of chemical weapons. The world did. We stood by for too long while Adolf Hitler carried out his genocide. Can we really stand by now?

And can we stand by knowing that our inaction prompts more horrors, in Syria and elsewhere? Because Assad isn't the only one watching to see what we do. It is not a remote possibility that he will use chemical weapons again. And it is not a remote possibility that North Korea will take our inaction as a signal that the international community will not meddle, will leave it alone, no matter what it does, with chemical weapons or nuclear ones.

At some point, of course, the conscience of international leaders will be pricked, and the world will act. But by that time, the provocation for action will have been much larger, the deaths and suffering more extensive, the photographs more horrifying.

There is nothing false in David Stockman's litany of America's atrocities. (And he didn't mention the biggest of them all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) But does that history remove our responsibility to act responsibly in the future? Does it sentence us to inaction?

The Times' Nicholas Kristof, who supports an attack, cites the concerns of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which, he says, "is exasperated at Western doves who think they are taking a moral stance."

And he quotes this from the Observatory's website: "What is emerging in the United States and United Kingdom now is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence." And Kristof asks: Isn't standing by the same as "'being pro-Assad' and resigning oneself to the continued slaughter of civilians?"

Many religious leaders are urging the US not to attack. Pope Francis has called for dialogue and negotiation.

But Assad has refused to negotiate. Russia has supplied aid, and until early this week, refused to put pressure on him. Sadly, there is no international outrage. And even if there were, would that stop Assad from doing whatever he feels he needs to do?

If no one but the US will do it, does mean it shouldn't be done?

If not us, who? And when? What would stop Kim Jong-un? What will stop anyone?

Other than an attack on our own country, would anything ever warrant the use of our military against another country? If the gassing of 400 children doesn't warrant it, what would?

Do the risks of an attack on Syria outweigh the certain escalation of chemical weapons use if we don't act?

"Some members of Congress who have heard the intelligence briefings say they aren't persuaded that there's firm proof of Assad's guilt."

"We stood by for too long while Adolf Hitler carried out his genocide. Can we really stand by now?"

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