Responding to the Use of Chemical Weapons (3rd Edition)

Getting killed or maimed by a chemical weapon isn’t necessarily worse than being killed or maimed by a bullet or high explosive. Being aware of their terrible effects, however, almost all countries have agreed not to use chemical weapons. And despite the fact that we’ve been lied to before by our political leaders (for example, regarding the Gulf of Tonkin incident and Iraq’s weapons program), it seems likely that President Obama is telling the truth and correctly interpreting the evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons — to devastating effect.

Before the President spoke yesterday, I would have bet that he was going to tell the Navy to launch cruise missiles against targets in Syria. Other presidents have made similar decisions, without Congressional approval and certainly without a declaration of war. That can be the right thing for a President to do in extraordinary circumstances. Yet I was hoping that Obama would wait for the report of the U.N. inspectors and also seek approval from Congress. If it’s clear that the Syrian government launched this attack, there should be a response, but that response doesn’t need to be immediate. It should also be a response supported by Congress, since we’re supposed to be a democracy.

Now there will be a debate in Congress. as well as a continuing debate in the media.Β We’ll hear many good reasons why the United States shouldn’t do anything, and some very good reasons for doing something.Β Maybe this will be one of those cases in which the “wisdom of crowds” will result in a good decision, even an improvement on what the President wants to do. Unfortunately, Congress, especially this Congress, rarely does anything wise.

This is the third time I’ve written this post, after deleting it twice.Β There is a strong moral case for doing something to stop the Syrian government and other governments from using chemical weapons, even though that may be a difficult thing to do and there will be unforeseeable consequences. We can’t know yet whether those possible consequences tip the scale toward doing nothing.Β 

The truth is that I don’t know what I’d do if I were Obama or a member of Congress. What’s happening in Syria (and Egypt, Iraq, etc.) may be so sick and so irrational that there is nothing for the rest of us to do but watch, hoping that these people will get tired of hating and killing each other or that someone will eventually exert control over the situation. One of those things might happen, probably after we’re dead and gone.