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The Obama Administration is telegraphing that it will likely take military action to punish the Syrian government, which it accuses of using chemical weapons against civilians. But it won’t inflict the damage necessary to drive President Bashar Assad from power.
That calibrated response has come in for criticism. But it’s preferable to the alternatives of either ignoring an atrocity or embarking on what could be a costly intervention in a civil war.
There is no guarantee that the sort of operation the administration is contemplating — the launching of cruise missiles from ships or submarines — will deter Assad from resorting to chemical warfare in the future. Proponents of this response obviously hope that proves to be the case.
Any projection of U.S. force in the Middle East runs the risk of inviting reprisals against U.S. interests and allies. Finally, it’s troubling that the administration seems uninterested in seeking formal approval from Congress.
But there is a reason that the administration, which has been admirably cautious about involving this country in another conflict in the Middle East, has decided it must act. It’s the same reason that the leaders of France and Britain have cited as those nations also weigh a military response.
Although conventional weapons cause death and injuries, since World War I chemical weapons have rightly been viewed by civilized nations as particularly abhorrent. If their evident deployment in Syria goes unpunished, other governments and movements might be emboldened to violate that taboo, with far-reaching and potentially tragic consequences.
Even if Mr. Obama had never described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line,” the deaths outside Damascus would have demanded a U.S. response. Now that the administration has indicated its willingness to take military action, it will be urged by some voices in Syria and in this country to add regime change to its objectives.
The United States has made clear that Syria would be better off without Assad. It has promised additional aid to some rebel groups, and has worked to ensure that a post-Assad government would be democratic and inclusive.
But a campaign to overthrow Assad would be dangerous and provocative. The administration is wise to resist the notion of “in for a penny, in for a pound.”