In 1994, the Clinton administration decided not to use the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda. US officials knew that if they called the killings what they were, they’d be obligated to intervene.
In contrast, President Obama is calling the recent chemical attack in a Damascus suburb as he sees it, even though he hasn’t decided what course of action to take. Putting a spotlight on the tragic chemical deaths in Syria shows a healthy respect for the truth, regardless of its consequences. But this policy has also created a problem. By speaking up about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons use, Obama has all but committed himself to military strikes. He faces a choice: Strike Syria and risk causing more chaos and death, or do nothing and let Assad get away with murder. The justification for a strike is clear and compelling, but Obama needs to make sure it doesn’t unnecessarily harm Syrian civilians, and fits into a larger plan to bring about the political transition that the country desperately needs.
To bolster its case for strikes, US officials on Friday declassified some of the intelligence that led them to conclude that Assad was responsible for killing 1,429 people, including 426 children, with poisonous gas that has been banned by most of the world.
The evidence appears to be direct and impressive. It includes intercepted communications between Assad’s forces discussing their fears that the chemical attack would be discovered by UN weapons inspectors, as well as signs that the regime protected its fighters from the poison by distributing gas masks. UN weapons inspectors will wrap up their work this weekend by delivering samples to laboratories for tests. Presumably, they will corroborate the fact that a chemical attack did in fact take place.
Obama is right to be cautious about a strike, and to consult with Congress. But in the end, he must act on his own best assessment.
Punishing Assad is a worthy goal, but it is not an end in itself.
It would be dangerous to set a precedent that chemical weapons can be used with impunity. It would also be dangerous for other countries, especially Iran, to think they don’t have to take a US president’s “red line” seriously, as Secretary of State John Kerry noted on Friday.
As long as military action is narrowly tailored, and limited to under 60 days, Obama does not need to seek a vote in Congress under the War Powers Resolution. Obama should use this leverage — even a limited set of military strikes could be painful to the Syrian regime — to try to push for more cooperation from Russia and Iran to prevail on Assad to agree to a political transition of power in Syria. Punishing Assad is a worthy goal, but it is not an end in itself. Obama needs to talk more about how such a punishment fits in with his larger strategy for protecting the Syrian people, and how it can help bring about the end of the Assad regime.