Once again it’s time to take sides. To strike or not to strike? To risk war or to risk another untold number of civilian deaths? To support or not to support? Forget baseball. This is our new national pastime. Line up. Pick a hat. Throw it in your favorite ring.
I’ve been watching the emergent arguments for days now, the back and forth over what we should do “about Syria” (as if it’s some recalcitrant child that continues, night after night, to argue over bedtime). Some of these arguments would contain a certain ironic humor (McCain and Gramm opposed until they weren’t; Sean Hannity sharing Ann Coulter’s opinions on the topic) if it all weren’t so heart-wrenching and frightening.
In my mind the use of chemical weapons demands some action, a "proportional response," as Aaron Sorkin wrote in The American President. It’s a line the world wants not to be crossed, and the image of a nation striking out against its own citizens only amplifies the outrage. We all know that we’re stuck with these things—Pandora-like, they’re out of the box—and that this is not the first time such weapons have been used. But the sheer public scale and the way in which the weapons were deployed this time—by a country’s leadership against its own citizens—demands response.
The current waters, though, have become incredibly muddied, partly because of Bush-era history and partly because of Obama’s continued mushiness in foreign policy. The world, perhaps rightfully, is once-bitten and twice shy thanks to the revealed bastardizations that the Bush administration went through to “prove” its case for Iraq. As a result, both citizens and governments worldwide are starkly hesitant to back us in any Syrian endeavor; here at home the wounds are all too recent (some only days old), and across the pond our staunchest ally has backed away from backing us. And in yet another display of twisted irony, the one country that supports the U.S. is France (maybe now we can finally put all that “freedom fries” crap behind us).
On top of the last hawkish legacy rides Obama’s unwavering wavering, a foreign policy that most resembles a pas de deux starring us and the rest of the world, one in which our president never seems to look down to see what he’s stepping in. When, back in August of 2012, Obama drew that red line for Syrian President Assad, he effectively committed us to action—except, apparently, he didn’t. ABC News, in a recent article reminding us of Obama’s misstep, writes that “Obama’s warning in August 2012 that use of a ‘whole bunch’ of chemical weapons would cross a ‘red line,’ triggering ‘enormous consequences,’ went much further than aides had planned, several told the New York Times earlier this year. Some reportedly wished Obama could have taken those words back.” (More irony: ABC also reminds us that the guy who said these things had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize!)
But this isn’t a grade-school playground, Mr. President. You’re the leader of the free world. You don’t get to just “take it back.” Nor should you, as you seem wont to do, rely on Congress for this action. We’re not talking war here; we’re talking a “proportional response” and you’re the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. You don’t need Congress; there’s ample precedent from nearly every 20th century president before you. You don’t even need public opinion—you just need to do what needs doing. Perhaps you were wrong to put us in this position, but here we are: not only is our credibility at stake, but so is our role in enforcing these un-crossable lines. Chemical weaponry is one of them, and now it’s time to act.
It’s what we need now. A proportional response. Not a show of strength or superiority, but a warning. Sometimes, when others in the world reveal themselves heinous, actions must be taken.