Thursday, September 12, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Defusing Syria crisis

The president, Congress and the American people for once share a deep ambivalence about a matter of considerable gravity, whether to launch a limited military assault on one of the world’s most ruthless tyrants, a man almost no one wishes well.

A Congress hopelessly fractured and dysfunctional for five years has for once abandoned partisanship and is seized by confusion about where a good Republican or a good Democrat ought to stand—with or against a reluctant president. Most members of Congress, including all but one of Arkansas’ own timid delegation, seem to be opting for the safest political course, which is to go with the public’s fears.

This is not an admirable picture of the nation at a crossroads but an understandable one. Ambivalence, caution and, yes, fear may also push the country along the wisest course in a region where we are deeply invested but where nothing ever turns out as we or anyone else planned.

President Obama has for five and a half years steered the country deftly through the rolling upheavals in the Middle East by following the course he outlined during his 2008 campaign, when he said he would take the United States out of Iraq, change the course of the long and drifting war in Afghanistan and end it in 2014, and keep the nation free of new military obligations.

The United States subtly supported the democratic aspirations of movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and shaped the outcomes with relatively small costs and without incurring the usual hostility that followed our earlier interventions in the region. No one can reliably guess whether we will one day rue our roles in any or all of them.

Syria is a far more dangerous game because it abuts Israel and Iraq, is allied with Iran and Russia, its ruler, Bashar al-Assad, has a huge arsenal of chemical and perhaps biological weapons, and he can pull us into the Armageddon that religionists have predicted and often wanted. Republicans—all except the libertarian band—have attacked the president for a year for not stepping boldly into the civil war and supplying heavy arms and enforcing a no-fly zone to aid the Sunni rebels, presuming we could separate them from the jihadists. Obama has, wisely we think, avoided a clinching military involvement, preferring diplomacy and propaganda against the regime, which he said must go. The greatest fear is a total collapse of the Syrian state and the redistribution of its conventional and chemical weapons among radical factions that would bring a certain and wider war that we could not sit out.

Then came the final round of chemical attacks on civilians that shocked the world. The United States has long held that the use of weapons of mass killing, especially against civilians, was unacceptable and that it was obliged to see that it didn’t happen or didn’t go unpunished. Presidents Reagan and Bush I and the Congresses of the 1980s looked on indulgently when their secret pal, Saddam Hussein, gassed Iranians and Iraqi Kurds and Shia by the tens of thousands, so we do not come to this terrible juncture with a record of pristine idealism.

President Obama then declared that Assad should not get away with the crime and that the United States, alone if necessary because it had the capacity to punish the deed, was morally obliged to use its might to degrade Syria’s ability to make further chemical attacks on people. Europe—all except France this time—quailed. Members of Congress who had been attacking Obama for being a nervous Nellie on Syria decided that now he was being reckless and that the country should pursue peace, not war.

They saw the polls and read the mail. The American people—and for once this seems to mean Arkansans, too—are sick of war and sick of the Middle East. Arkansas congressmen who loved the fruitless wars begun by the President George W. Bush reported tides of mails and calls from their constituents saying don’t bomb Assad, although Iraq did not have WMDs and our leaders had every reason to know it, but Assad admits he has them.

The president did another shocking thing. Defying precedents going back 50 years, he asked Congress for what amounts to a declaration of war. The Congress has not declared war since 1941, though presidents have occasionally sought and received authorizations for military engagements. And Congress for the first time seems unlikely to give it. Republicans like the idea of the president failing, but they also know they are obliging most of the voters. Arkansas’ only Democrat, Sen. Mark Pryor, said he would not authorize an attack.

Obama’s only supporter in Arkansas’ delegation is Rep. Tom Cotton, his fiercest critic. That might seem odd, but Cotton could hardly do otherwise, given his unrelenting support of the Bush wars and his repeated call to engage the Syrians in combat. It also fits his fiscal policy. The only thing worth spending taxpayer dollars on in Cotton’s view is something that explodes.

We are not sure the president would be unhappy with the failure of congressional authorization for a limited attack on delivery units for chemical munitions. He sent signals through Russia last week that, with or without congressional authorization, he would not attack if Syria quickly surrendered its chemical and biological stockpiles to international control and ultimate destruction. The Russians and seemingly Assad himself grasped at the reed. We are skeptical that Assad will not try to escape the dilemma by delaying and conniving.

Still, anything that avoids a headlong lurch into the dark room of war is worth pursuing. Nothing bold that the United States has done in the region since 1953, when we overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, has turned out as we intended or well. If the president, guided by a fearful public and a timid Congress, navigates the chemical crisis without firing a rocket he will have served us well—we hope.