Mr. Obama has understandably viewed any involvement in Syria as a slippery slope to an expensive war that Americans do not want and will not support. Even after President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, his administration has been slow to react, and after much back-and-forth it has decided to punish Mr. Assad — but only in a discrete operation that would not have a direct bearing on the outcome of the civil war, and only, as Mr. Obama suggested on Saturday, if Congress gives its blessing.
The world will not see this as prudence but rather as dithering — reinforcing the perception that the United States is hiding behind its economic woes and, hounded by the ghosts of Iraq, is no longer keen on leading the world. That will embolden America’s adversaries and deject its friends. America could soon find itself alone in standing up to Iran or North Korea, or in pushing back against China and Russia, which have used their veto power on the Security Council to block United Nations authorization for intervention in Syria.
Americans are justifiably weary of war, but the lesson of Syria is that shirking from our global responsibilities will only create bigger problems that will eventually raise both the cost and the likelihood of American intervention.
Given the impasse at the United Nations, and with Turkey and France the only allies publicly supporting an American-led intervention, Mr. Obama’s desire to seek the blessing of Congress (even though he maintains he does not legally need it) is understandable. But waiting for lawmakers to return from their summer recess to respond to an international crisis sends the wrong message to the world.
Syria is a problem that threatens regional security and America’s vital interests in the Middle East. The war has created a humanitarian crisis that threatens to overwhelm Syria’s neighbors; touched off sectarian conflict that has destabilized Lebanon and Iraq; and provided Al Qaeda with a vast area of operation, stretching across Syria and into Iraq.
These are not easy problems to resolve, but there will be no resolution without American leadership. And failing to provide that leadership is bound to lead to the very outcome the Obama administration has been trying to avoid: intervention.
Mr. Obama hopes that a limited military strike will deter future use of chemical weapons. But if every American response will be subject to the same prolonged decision-making process the world has witnessed over the past week and a half, and then carried out so cautiously as not to affect the outcome of the civil war, what incentive would Mr. Assad have to not test Mr. Obama’s “red line” again? Rather than provide deterrence, the administration’s tepid response would only invite further violations of international law.
The Obama administration has unwittingly found itself boxed in. If it carries out a military response to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons that is limited to punishment and does not seriously weaken the Syrian military, there could be one of two outcomes.
The first is that the Assad regime falls, which would mean that Syria, or chunks of it, could be ruled by radical Islamists associated with Al Qaeda — producing new and unwelcome threats to global security that could invite an even larger American intervention down the line.
The second is that American military strikes will level the playing field between Mr. Assad’s forces and the rebels, so that the civil war would go on for a long time, destroying more of the country, killing more of its population, and sending even more refugees into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. That would make the Syrian conflict even more dangerous. With no American deterrent on the horizon, the Assad regime might use chemical weapons again, while extremists might provide havens for terrorists of the kind the Afghan war produced for Al Qaeda in the 1990s.
It is in America’s strategic interest, then, to take decisive action to mortally wound the Assad regime. Ensuring that Syria does not become a haven for Al Qaeda — a legitimate fear — would have to immediately follow.
Mr. Assad may be right to think the Obama administration does not want involvement in Syria, but the horrors of this war have effectively forced America into it. The risks of intervention are great, and success is uncertain, but doing nothing would be, at this point, far worse.
America should act decisively and in a timely manner, and based on a strategic vision that includes a way out of this war. That would impress American allies and adversaries alike. That is what the world needs and what Mr. Obama should focus on.
Vali Nasr is dean of Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and author of “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.”