EDITORIAL: Showdown in Syria

Obama’s reluctance to engage leads to crisis now

War fever is exciting, thrilling even, and it’s contagious. Where it stops, none can tell. Prudent presidents go slowly, keeping all options open, measuring their response twice to cut it once.

Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the charge for President Obama, calling the evidence of poison gas sprayed on Syrian civilians a “moral obscenity,” and all but saying Bashar Assad has crossed Mr. Obama’s celebrated “red line.” This is short of the president saying that, but not by much. Secretaries of state are not freelancers.

Chuck Hagel, the secretary of defense, says his troops are “ready to go.” The Arab League holds Mr. Assad “responsible,” and Saudi Arabia and Qatar condemn “unconventional weapons,” suggesting cover if the Western nations intervene. British Prime Minister David Cameron has recalled Parliament to London, presumably to stand by for action, and Paris says “France will not shirk its responsibilities.” Everyone knows his lines. Russia and China, eager to reassure their client in Damascus, make the usual rumbling noises.

No dictator, not even Stalin or Hitler, deserved a Tomahawk missile down his throat more than Bashar Assad. The video images of the children, twitching in spasms of unimaginable pain on the brink of merciful death, demand retribution beyond the power of mere words.

Chemical warfare is swift, silent and effective, and the West suspects that Mr. Assad has used the same agents that Saddam Hussein used on dozens of Kurdish villages in Iraq 25 years ago. This was a mixture of several nerve agents, including VX, which is particularly lethal. A tiny drop one eighth the size of a raindrop on the skin will kill an adult man. “Like figures unearthed in Pompeii,” Richard Beeston of the London Times reported on arriving in the town of Halabja, “the victims of Halabja were killed so quickly that their corpses remained in suspended animation. There was a plump baby whose face, frozen in a scream, stuck out from under the protective arm of a man, away from the open door of a house that he never reached.”

Nearly 5,000 Kurds, including the inevitable women and children, died at Halabja of skin burns, asphyxiation, and collapse of the lungs. More than twice that many, a study by the University of Liverpool concluded, were blinded, maimed or irreversibly disfigured. Similar figures can be expected to emerge from Syria.

Going to war is lethal business, too, and President Obama is rightly reluctant to commit the United States to another war in the Middle East, where nothing is ever settled and religious brutality is sometimes the national sport. Revenge can be sweet, but the life of a single American soldier must be weighed against the prospect of accomplishing permanent good in Syria.

Chemical weapons — gas warfare — have struck particular terror in the West since the bitter experience of World War I. Both the Allies and the Axis had chemical weapons in World War II, and Winston Churchill and his military chiefs considered using them when Britain faced invasion in the summer of 1940 and again in 1944, when the allied race to Berlin stalled in the Ruhr. Moral considerations outweighed the prospects of military advantage. Morality is rarely held so dear in the Middle East.

Going to war against Mr. Assad cannot be justified merely as revenge, as sweet as that might be, but only as an object lesson to other brutes with access to hideous weapons. President Obama’s reluctance to act earlier, when missiles might not have been the language of negotiations, leads to the harder decision he faces now.

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