On Syria, Trust Obama

Once the president draws a red line, he must act.

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President Barack Obama meets with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, in the cabinet room of the White House on September 3, 2013.
President Barack Obama meets with National Security Adviser Susan Rice and members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, in the cabinet room of the White House on September 3, 2013.

The path to the president's decision to seek congressional authority to act militarily in Syria has been a rocky one, but Congress must give him the ability to act. The options we face are horrible, with real military and geopolitical risks, but the president needs the strongest hand possible when engaging dictators and foreign forces. Our national credibility is on the line and the use of chemical weapons requires consequences. 

Foreign policy is serious business and committing U.S. forces to take military action is no joke. It's not a place for bluster or political maneuvering. People will get hurt, innocent Syrians who are living under the thumb of Assad included. There is no more consequential action for a president to take, but we pick commanders in chief to make these decisions.

Congress should be consulted, but the president is the only elected official charged with protecting the entire nation. Unless he is proven to be erratic or unworthy, we should trust him – Democrat or Republican – to take short-term, limited military actions.

As Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, the country is war weary. Our history of retrenchment and isolationism is reasserting itself. Americans have always been reluctant to enter foreign conflicts. Indeed many of our forebears came here to escape such quagmires. While the public tends to rally ‘round the troops once they are committed, if the rationale is poorly explained and things take a turn for the worst, that support can wane quickly. That risk gives the president's decision to engage the public and their representatives some merit.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

However, Americans have legitimate concerns. Should we be involved in Syria at all? This is a regional conflict that is consuming the attention of our adversaries. Some argue we should let them hash it out. Can the humanitarian concerns be dealt with by creating safe zones or through other non-lethal means?

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is concerned that, though we committed to support the rebels, that support is not happening fast enough. While we must live up to our commitments, some U.S. policymakers are wary of the fighters we would equip. Do we really want to arm people whom we might have to confront after this conflict? And who will take over if dictator Bashar Assad is overthrown?

Perhaps the president shouldn't have drawn a red line on chemical weapons in the first place. However Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said today after leaving a bipartisan meeting at the White House, the president didn't draw the red line, "humanity drew it decades ago."

[Vote: Is Obama Right to Ask for Congressional Approval on Bombing Syria?]

Should President Obama even ask Congress for authorization, even though he believes he already has the authority? Going to Congress for authorization for such a limited action could set dangerous precedents. How often should he go back to Congress if conditions change? 

Let the debates continue, but once the president draws a red line, he must act, and now that he has gone to Congress, he must convince lawmakers to support his action. A president can appear to be many things, but weak is not one of them and if he has his hands tied by Congress, that is exactly how he will appear from abroad. A president viewed by foreign leaders as unable to back up threats makes all of us less safe. Republican Speaker John Boehner made a similar point today. The Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill should listen.

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