The Obama administration apparently has decided to launch military action against the Syrian regime in response to a chemical attack that killed hundreds of civilians, and has moved on to the narrower matter of when, where and how hard to hit. Even a limited strike using cruise missiles launched from the safety of U.S. ships can trigger unintended consequences in the world's most unstable region. The administration needs to present a compelling case that President Bashar Assad's regime was behind the attack. It also should build a broad coalition of international partners and limit any strikes to dismantling Syria's chemical weapons assets.
Preparation for a Western military response moved ahead Wednesday as the United States, Britain and France worked the phones lining up support for a united front. Diplomatic efforts to find a political solution failed again — predictably — at the United Nations. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon tried to buy time, urging all sides to give a U.N. inspection team in Damascus the four days it has remaining to examine the site of the alleged attack and report back.
The administration has left itself little political wiggle room. President Barack Obama declared more than a year ago that the Syrians' use of chemical weapons in the civil war would cross a "red line" that would bring a robust response. Secretary of State John Kerry this week called the attack a "moral obscenity." But evidence and proportion should guide the U.S. response to this crisis.
Obama should present the evidence that Syria unleashed the chemical attack. Americans are still weary and wary of military intervention following the unfounded claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the yearslong morass in Afghanistan. But the indiscriminate nature of the devastation that chemical weapons cause is why the international community has long outlawed their use. There is a legal, moral and practical basis for retaliating against Syria. But the administration should be clear-minded about the costs, the risks and the limits of airstrikes on limited targets.
Obama might want to re-read the benchmarks he laid out in 2002, when the then-Illinois state senator warned against the invasion of Iraq. "I don't oppose all wars," Obama said then. But rather: "A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion." Obama should take the time necessary to make his case. A military strike against Syria might lessen the regime's appetite to use its chemical arsenal, but what happens after the bombs fall?