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Sat., Aug. 29
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Make the call


It’s time for President Obama to get off the fence.

He has been debating with advisers about how to respond to reports that Syrian military forces used chemical weapons last week against civilians near Damascus. The attacks were immediately condemned, and rightly so. The civil war that has raged in Syria for more than two years has become a human rights nightmare, and there doesn’t appear to be any end in sight.

But as of Thursday, Mr. Obama declared he still hadn’t made up his mind. There are obviously many factors to consider when contemplating military action. Each option has its share of consequences, and such situations usually involve selecting from the lesser of all the evils on the table.

Needless to say, this is not an easy decision. We do not want Mr. Obama to rush into making a choice without fully exploring all the relevant information.

But a course of action must be taken, and Mr. Obama must stop dithering and explain to America how he intends to respond. He can examine the intricacies of each alternative for an extended time, but it won’t make these options any better or easier. Figure out which route offers the most effective response with the fewest hazards and get moving.

The favored response in the last few days appeared to be a limited military strike. It’s interesting to note that administration officials have been quick to point out that this strike would not be geared toward bringing down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or tipping the balance of the Syrian civil war to one side or the other.

Any military action we took, then, would be for the sole purpose of displaying our outrage over the use of chemical weapons. This would amount to a slap on the wrist.

Such a military response would have little effect on al-Assad. He has steadfastly denied committing atrocities these past two years while freely engaging in them for all to see.

He had to know that the world community would quickly discover his use of chemical weapons, and yet he did it anyway. This is not a man who can be shamed into compliance.

And administration officials have been leaking all sorts of details of potential strategies, giving Syria plenty of warning about where to expect a military strike. So much for military secrecy. The element of surprise has been compromised.

This leaves us to question what can be accomplished with a limited military strike conducted in such a way as to not weaken al-Assad’s dictatorial grip. Yes, some of his military forces will be killed. But other than that, what incentive will there be for him to curtail the bloodshed?

U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-21st District, of Plattsburgh was in Watertown earlier this week speaking before members of the AARP. He was asked what advice he would give to the president concerning Syria, and he said he was opposed to placing U.S. ground forces there. Mr. Owens said he favored the strategy used two years ago in Libya where U.S. military personnel worked in tandem with the United Nations to enforce a no-fly zone.

Mr. Owens’s ideas have merit, but a few conditions must be met for them to be acceptable.

Being part of a U.N. coalition cannot mean that the United States provides the vast bulk of the military force used in any strike as has been the case in far too many operations. The responsibility must be shared more broadly among any coalition partners.

And members of Congress like Mr. Owens have a solemn duty to hold Mr. Obama accountable to adhering to the U.S. Constitution when engaging in military conflict. Many of them complained that the president never asked for or received authorization to become involved in Libya, and this is true.

But then they didn’t do anything about this egregious flaunting of the law — they simply looked the other way. This is not leadership.

The deadline for Mr. Obama to make a decision on Syria has passed, and he must act. And if that means that he has to swallow his pride by admitting that we can do nothing to improve the situation there and should not intervene, so be it. But the clock is ticking, and he can’t stand on the sidelines conferring with his assistant coaches indefinitely.

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