The bipartisan vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday to grant President Barack Obama the authority to use military force to respond to Syria's apparent use of chemical weapons is the first concrete step toward taking action. Congress has an obligation to methodically vet the evidence and weigh the consequences of both intervention and inaction. The administration passed the first test, but there are others to come as our elected representatives search for the best of the bad options.
Administration officials, in a series of meetings on Capitol Hill this week, made a forceful case for retaliating against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom the United States blames for a chemical attack last month that the administration estimates killed more than 1,400 civilians. That death toll is far higher than the figure given by some opposition groups, other Western nations and human rights organizations on the ground. The administration has publicly released little evidence to support its claim that Syrian security forces organized and carried out the attack in Damascus on Aug. 21. Members of Congress from both parties who attended the classified briefings this week, however, say they are confident that the intelligence shows Assad is responsible; the question for them is whether and how the United States should respond.
A gas attack violates the nearly century-old global ban on the use of chemical weapons, and it would warrant a response by the international community. Doing nothing would encourage Assad to use chemical weapons again to try to break the deadlock in Syria's 2-year-old civil war. But the limited military action Obama proposes offers no guarantee it will keep Assad in check, much less destroy his capacity to use chemical weapons. Assad could retaliate against civilian areas under rebel control, or launch reprisal attacks against Turkey or Israel, further inflaming regional tensions across the Middle East.
Obama boxed himself in by drawing a red line last year on Syria's use of chemical weapons. The administration did not plan well for this development, and now there are only bad options. Launching military strikes may not achieve the intended goal, but doing nothing could embolden Israel to launch its own strikes in the Middle East and signal to Iran that it can act with little fear that the United States will back up its verbal warnings.
The administration should continue building its case, and Congress should keep asking tough questions. Obama made the right decision to seek congressional approval to militarily respond to the use of chemical weapons, and the Senate took a reasonable step Wednesday by narrowing the window for the use of force. The limited timetable for action now under consideration would tend to rule out any broad commitment of U.S. troops. But as Secretary of State John Kerry pointed out in a candid moment in his Senate testimony, there are risks of escalation with any military mission. There also is a risk in doing nothing in response to a massive use of chemical weapons that the civilized world abhors, and Americans are counting on their elected representatives to make an informed decision.