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Charles Vignola: Syria offers us no good choices

Posted: September 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 10, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Today, President Obama will address the nation and try to convince a skeptical American public why it’s important to take limited military action in Syria as retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad last month allowing chemical weapons to be used against civilians, killing nearly 1,500 people, including more than 400 children, with sarin gas.

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans are understandably fed up with foreign adventures, tired of acting as the world’s policeman and want more attention paid to the myriad problems at home.

Even if President Obama convinces Congress that we should take military action against Syria — an outcome that seems increasingly unlikely — there’s still no guarantee that whatever we do will have the desired effect.
In fact, people are justifiably worried about the unforeseen consequences of more U.S. military strikes in yet another Middle Eastern country.

Syria’s embroiled in a bloody civil war in which there are no clear heroes: its president permitted the use of chemical weapons against civilians in violation of nearly 100 years of international law, but many of the Syrian rebel factions are radicalized Muslim fundamentalists and infiltrated by Al Qaeda forces.

Our actions could inadvertently tip the scales in either direction with no clear positive outcome for American interests.

It’s like being a prison guard and watching a knife fight between a serial rapist and a mass murderer: you’re supposed to step in and break it up, but you could get killed in the process — and besides, they’re both bad guys so who cares about the outcome.

Even worse, once again America seems to be out there alone in the international community. Britain’s Parliament decided against military action om Syria, no doubt deeply skeptical after being burned in the Iraq War where a similar “weapons of mass destruction” argument was carted out, only to be exposed as a mirage.

I hear all of those arguments and I sympathize with everyone. I don’t want to start another engagement in another Middle Eastern country, either.

There are no good or easy choices to be found here, and anyone on any side of the political spectrum who thinks he or she has the answer is full of crap. I don’t envy President Obama at this moment.

And yet ... the evidence is overwhelming that Syrian military forces used sarin gas against civilians, in contravention of nearly a century-long international moratorium against such terrifying weapons. Hundreds of children died in the streets in the most horrific manner imaginable.

No one in Congress is disputing this has happened, the European Union has agreed al-Assad’s administration is guilty of war crimes, and even the Arab League is behind us that Syria has crossed a “red line.”

There are unknown consequences of taking military action, no matter how limited, against a foreign nation. Iraq and Afghanistan were very long and expensive master classes in what can and will go wrong despite the best of intentions.

But there are also unknown consequences of inaction if we let Syria’s atrocity stand unchallenged. If even America is unwilling to step in and smack down a dictator who presides over the gassing of hundreds of children, what message does that send around the world?

Will such apparent waffling discourage other dictators or terrorists from using similar or worse chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, or will it embolden them?

Will such weapons then proliferate, and possibly be used on America’s allies like Israel or Turkey — or perhaps even on U.S. soil?

Nobody has a crystal ball, but if no one has the courage to stand up to the bully, then the bully has no incentive to change his behavior.

Worse, other potential bullies will take their cue from this, knowing that America has lost its desire to enforce international laws and norms of behavior.

Obviously, a lot of this will ride on the argument that President Obama makes today and the response it gets here in America and around the world. But this terrible situation puts America at a dangerous crossroads in terms of our influence and relevance moving forward.

Do we abdicate our moral authority as a country when the evil is this clear-cut and instead return to a pre-World War II isolationist mentality?

Or do we set the moral example and take action in a thoughtful, responsible way that rallies public support and builds international consensus?

Thanks to President Bush our lamentable misadventures in Iraq squandered much of America’s foreign policy credibility, effectively turning us into “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” It’s high time we turn that perception around.

We need to repair America’s damaged reputation when it comes to dealing with rogue nations — but that will be next to impossible if we turn a blind eye to such atrocities and tell the world that it’s not our problem any more.

As the old saying goes, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Charlie Vignola is a former college Republican turned liberal Democrat. He lives in Fair Oaks Ranch, works in the motion picture industry and loves his wife and kids.


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