EDITORIAL: The questions for President Obama

This is his last chance to make the case for war

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What has been the biggest debacle on Obama's watch?

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Rarely have so many Americans waited so anxiously to hear a president speak truth to them. We’ve been talking, debating and speculating around supper tables, in car pools, at work and in all the places Americans gather, about President Obama’s proposed “shot across the bow” of Syria’s Bashar Assad to punish his deadly and barbaric use of chemical weapons against his own people.

Few think Mr. Obama has so far argued a persuasive case, but many are willing to listen further Tuesday night. A president’s request for action he says is in the national interest is entitled to the benefit of the doubt, but the president nevertheless has to overcome the doubt. So far, he has not.

The question still unanswered is whether a few missiles lobbed into Syria will accomplish much; the president himself says they aren’t likely to knock out or even seriously weaken the Assad regime. He made a rambling and barely coherent case for what he wants to do at the Group of 20 summit. He continues to argue on one hand that Americans are obliged to support the prospective attack because he drew “a red line” a year ago, but now he says he never did that; the red line was drawn by someone else, perhaps by the “international community.”

The debate is a serious one, and the right questions are about when and how American military forces should be deployed, whether the mission the president wants to undertake is achievable and whether it can be done without starting another long and costly war in the Middle East.

The president and his advocates make two arguments. The first is humanitarian, whether the killing of perhaps as many as 1,400 civilians, including women and children, can go unpunished. The president argues that barbarians must be stopped and punished, demonstrating to other barbarians that they can expect similar punishment. This argument makes no claim on legitimate American national security interests and suggests that mass killings by ordinary shot and shell is acceptable. The Syrian civil war has claimed more than 100,000 lives, and the president says he contemplates nothing to do about that.

He seems to think that the United States must act, alone if necessary, if only because we can. We have the missiles and bombers, and must therefore use them to prevent evildoers from harming the innocent if they use poison gas. This sounds high-minded, but it’s altruism run amok, making American soldiers the policemen of a world with many dangerous neighborhoods, populated by more rogues than any army could punish.

The second argument is at least based on national security interests. The president’s pleaders argue that having drawn a line, credibility as a nation is at stake and America must act if it is to remain credible. This is a serious argument, but the president undermines it with his assertion that in spite of what’s on the videotape he never promised to punish Mr. Assad if he crossed a “red line.”

American credibility has been diminished already by the lack of leadership from a president who doesn’t get it, leads from behind or vacillates in a crisis, squandering the support of traditional allies. Firing a few missiles won’t provide anything more than a sound and light show over Damascus, and won’t make up for years of going AWOL when leadership might have done a job.

When the president speaks tonight, Americans must ask themselves several questions that won’t be answered by photographs of dead children, however heartbreaking they will be. Americans can ask why American blood and treasure should be expended in a civil war in a far-off place that poses nothing close to an imminent threat. How will a few Tomahawk missiles deter or weaken Bashar Assad? How might the chaos that follows enable a jihadist takeover in Syria, and will that benefit the civilized world?

What is likely to happen if the missiles deter nothing, leaving the United States with diminished credibility and igniting a regional war? What then? Must the Obama administration get a blank check to draw on trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives, to be spent in yet another war in the Middle East? These are the questions the president must answer if he hopes to unite the nation for war.

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