Last week, the Obama administration was signaling that it would take unilateral military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad for what the administration insists was the deliberate use of chemical weapons to kill hundreds of civilians. On Saturday, the president abruptly — and appropriately — changed course, saying that he would seek support in Congress for action to "hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior and degrade their capacity to carry it out."
We agree with Obama that convincing proof of widespread use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government justifies a military response — designed not to overthrow Assad but to punish him for defying a century-old understanding about the particular abhorrence of chemical weapons. But we were critical of the president for his seeming indifference to the importance of obtaining assent from Congress for military actions that do not address an imminent threat to the United States.
Obama has now rectified that flaw in his approach. But there is a danger that in securing the needed majorities, the president might agree to more drastic action than is necessary. We found it ominous that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a longtime proponent of U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, said after a meeting with Obama on Monday that he was now confident the president was planning an attack "a little more robust than I thought."
Another concern is that the draft resolution released by the administration contains broad language that could give rise to mission creep. It says: "The president is authorized to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary." Congress shouldn't dictate to the president and his commanders the precise number or timing of cruise missile strikes, but the resolution should be modified to make explicit what Obama already has promised: that the U.S. "would not put boots on the ground." On Tuesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry expressed an openness to such language.
Not all of the votes the administration needs belong to senators and representatives who agree with McCain; it also must obtain the support of members of both chambers from both parties who worry that a limited strike to enforce the prohibition on chemical warfare will mutate into an intervention reminiscent of Iraq or Afghanistan.
Satisfying all of the factions in Congress on this issue is a challenge comparable to the proper alignment of a Rubik's Cube. Ideally, the result will be nothing less — but also nothing more — than what Kerry called "a limited and tailored response to ensure that a despot's brutal and flagrant use of chemical weapons is held accountable."
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