Syria And The Iraq Syndrome

Responding to Assad is about more than our interests. It is ‘about who we are.’

(WALL STREET JOURNAL 04 SEP 13) … William A. Galston

Only now is America reckoning the full cost of the disaster in Iraq – friends in the Middle East doubting our competence, our closest ally unwilling to stand with us in Syria, our people weary and fearful of entanglements that could prove open-ended. Little more than a decade after the Vietnam syndrome was laid to rest, an Iraq syndrome has replaced it.

The question is whether this new sentiment will dominate policy – whether acting for the wrong reasons in Iraq will prevent us from acting for the right reasons in Syria.

On Friday, in what was surely Secretary of State John Kerry’s finest hour, he stated the challenge clearly to the nation: “Now, we know that after a decade of conflict, the American people are tired of war. Believe me, I am too. But fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”

“Our responsibility.” What is it? What does it require of us?

In the first place, “our” means all of us – the United States, not just the president. Whatever the truth of the interminable debate over the limits of executive power, Mr. Obama was right to ask the members of Congress, as representatives of the American people, to join him in a firm but measured response to Bashar Assad’s crime against his own people.

But why is it this country’s responsibility? The stark fact is that the U.S. is the only country in the world with the capacity to respond to Assad’s outrageous use of chemical weapons in a way that might deter him from repeating it.

It would be good to have friends and allies standing with the U.S. But from a military standpoint, it is not strictly necessary. If America acts, others may follow – or at least offer support. If we don’t, no one else will.

If you don’t have the ability to do something, it makes no sense to say that you have a responsibility to do it. It does not follow that if you do have the ability to do something you also have the responsibility to do it. It does mean that you can’t avoid the question.

For better or worse (mostly for better, I believe), the United States is the guarantor of the global order, which we took the lead in creating. In that role, we provide global public goods – forms of stability and security, such as freedom of the seas, from which other nations benefit, not just us.

True enough, the stability and security that this country provides allows other nations to be free-riders, to benefit from what we do without contributing to it. Understandably, the American people resent this – and when a foreign involvement backfires, they want to scale back the nation’s global role.

But Americans benefit, perhaps more than anyone else, from the leading role the country plays in the world. The task of U.S. leaders is to remind the people that we have a lot to lose if others come to believe that we are no longer willing to bear the burdens of leadership.

These general truths do not resolve the particular question now before the country. Some things are clear. The president’s aim in Syria is deterrence, not regime change. The means cannot include boots on the ground, and the actions taken must minimize the risk that any Americans will fall into Assad’s hands.

A purely symbolic act would be worse than useless, however. Mr. Obama and Congress should weigh the possibility that effective deterrence may require targeting regime assets (such as Assad’s air force) beyond those specifically involved in the poison-gas attack.

By seeking authorization for the use of military force, Mr. Obama has put the political system to a test. Has Congress lost the ability to treat serious matters seriously? Can the president persuade a reluctant people to follow him? He will not be able to do this unless he makes his case wholeheartedly, without reluctance or ambivalence.

Syria is about more than our interests, narrowly construed. What we do now is “profoundly about who we are,” as Mr. Kerry put it. “We are the country that has tried, not always successfully, but always tried to honor a set of universal values around which we have organized our lives and our aspirations. This crime against conscience, this crime against humanity, this crime against the most fundamental principles of international community, against the norm of the international community – this matters to us, and it matters to who we are. And it matters to leadership and to our credibility in the world.”

Mr. Obama will need to convey this idea to the American people as well, from the Oval Office. He must be prepared to go all-in to win what is shaping up as a tough fight on Capitol Hill. One thing is clear: A loss would shatter his presidency, and a lot more.

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