It has been an intense few weeks in our nation’s capital. Typically this is the time when everything slows down, people take long lunches and mentally prepare for what the fall brings. With the conflict in Syria reaching a boiling point, this summer has been anything but normal. And tonight, President Obama will make his case to the American people about why he wants to conduct air strikes in Syria. Make no mistake; this is a very complicated, difficult issue. One that isn’t as black and white as some make it out to be.
By now you’ve seen and heard about the atrocities happening in the Syrian civil war. President Bashar al-Assad is accused of using chemical weapons a few weeks ago outside of Damascus, killing over 1,400 civilians including 400 children. War is always ugly, civil war even more so. But there is something different and exponentially horrific about chemical warfare, so much so that the international community has set clear red lines about its use. It’s a red line that President Obama mentioned, but presidents before him and other countries around the world have stood by it and enforced it. Chemical weapons are indiscriminant—it is not about defeating your enemy. It is about killing or injuring as many people as possible with no regard to their combatant status. Not to mention the potential ill effects on neighboring countries in the region.
Despite all that, with all the problems happening here at home—unacceptably high unemployment rate in the African American community, violence-plagued communities, crumbling infrastructure—it is understandable that some people are raising serious objections to intervening. To them I say we as a country must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Despite all of our issues, we are still a pretty powerful and wealthy country. We should, and must, be able to take care of our domestic needs and also be able to respond internationally when need be.
There are those who oppose any involvement whatsoever in yet another Middle Eastern country. And honestly, I can’t blame them. This country has been at war nonstop for the past 12 years. We watched as our leaders got us mired in an unnecessary war in Iraq on faulty evidence that lead to thousands of brave men and women losing their lives. We are simply tired. There are many tragedies to come out of the Iraq war, but it would be a shame if the inability to differentiate between conflicts was one of them. What the President is asking to do in Syria is nowhere near what happened in Iraq—nor Afghanistan or Libya for that matter. If you take the administration at their word, they are calling for small, limited and targeted air strikes aimed at reducing Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. And that’s it. It is important that we avoid mission creep, and one of the ways to do that is a narrowly written resolution coming out of Congress.
This is a very tough situation the President finds himself in. On the one hand, there doesn’t appear to be much support at the moment to intervene and, on the other, there is the need to make sure that the use of chemical weapons doesn’t go unanswered. And if the response to that last sentence is “well, why do we have to be the ones to do it?” I think the answer is because sometimes we just do. I spent the end of my summer at a conference on global governance, and one of the consistent themes was that while the world order is shifting and other countries are stepping into leadership roles traditionally occupied by the U.S., there are still going to be times when an action will need to happen on the international stage and the U.S. will have to be the one to take the lead. This is one of those times. There is still hope that perhaps a diplomatic solution can be reached: Russia has proposed a measure to the United Nations to have Syria place all of its chemical weapons under international control. But in my opinion, you don’t have to choose one option over the other. We should continue to pursue diplomacy but be able to back it up with force if need be.
Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Senior Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center for American Progress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123