EDITORIAL: If not an attack, then what?

AS COMMUNITY NEWSPAPER EDITOR I frequently tell our readers: You can get national and international news elsewhere; what we publish is local. And then there are times like these when events overwhelm the urge to be consistent.

The president’s speech on Syria Tuesday evening was clear and persuasive. It was a relief to hear him say there may be a way to remove chemical weapons from Bashar al-Assad’s arsenal without this country’s direct military intervention. His made a strong case that the credible threat of an attack of some kind by U.S. forces is the only reason Assad finally admitted he has these horrible poison gas weapons and why he says he’ll give them up. Possibly Assad, a mass murderer, thinks occasionally how his former neighbor Saddam Hussein was reduced to hiding in a hole in the ground and how one of his guards recorded Saddam’s execution and posted it on social media. But even if Assad experiences discomfort from such thoughts, it’s difficult to believe he will surrender the weapons that sustain his tyranny. Instead he’ll cynically play for time, giving a little here and there while he prolongs his reign with more slaughter and torture.

Rather than disarm or negotiate in any meaningful way he will resume his outrages as soon as he has the opportunity, and we’ll be back where we were last week with little to show for it other than the corpses of a few more thousands or tens of thousands of Syrians, most of them civilians.
Congressman Chris Gibson (R-19th) represents all of Columbia County and politically diverse district that stretches into the Catskills and north to the Adirondacks. He spent 29 years in the Army, serving as both an enlisted man and, eventually, a colonel commanding a brigade of paratroopers in Iraq. He opposes any U.S. attack on Syria and says he will vote against authorizing the president to mount the limited action Mr. Obama has presented to Congress.

Mr. Gibson’s question to the president has been: What would an attack achieve? Mr. Obama did his best to answer that Tuesday when he said it would serve notice to Assad and other dictators that they can’t use poison gas without risking military intervention led by this country. The president also said an attack would not only protect the lives of children in Syria, it would make our children safer too. He said the willingness to stand up for what’s right worldwide is what makes this country exceptional.

On these points the president was eloquent but unconvincing. Despots don’t behave according to accepted norms, so why should we expect Assad will respond predictably to the lesson we hope to teach him?

I recoil at the thought of more children strangled by poison gas and surely the people of the Middle East share our revulsion at the barbarity of Assad’s forces. But these scenes for people in that region may also bring to mind recent images of small bodies in Afghanistan, collateral damage of our war effort there. This does not reduce us to the moral equivalent of the Syrians who fatally gassed 400 children last month in the suburbs of Damascus, but distinctions according to cause of violent death are not so clear outside our borders.

We can’t base our actions on what others think of us, but we can’t ignore their perceptions either if we want to deal with those others peacefully in the future. In every recent intervention by the United States in the Mideast the reaction and the outcome have been far different from what our government told us would happen. So when a president explains what will happen after we attack Assad, we have reason to be skeptical.

Those of us who oppose an attack on Syrian forces are called “isolationists.” The label is wrong. We need more engagement in the world than we’ve ever had to slow the effects of global warming and to allow the billions of our neighbors the chance to feed and house and care for themselves and their families.

There are monstrous villains in the world. We will have to fight some of them. But ultimately, we can’t bomb away rising temperatures nor will drones destroy polluted water and air. Mr. Gibson is right to ask what will an attack achieve. Now it’s up to those who are not isolationists to explain what we’d like to achieve if our nation doesn’t attack and how we’d like to go about achieving it.

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