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If America's 'red lines' are viewed as meaningless, larger and more costly conflicts are certain.
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When Congress returns to Washington next week, it will begin an intensive and historic debate over authorizing military force against the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria—a debate whose outcome is very much uncertain.
We share the concerns of many in Congress about the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in Syria over the past two years and its approach to the Middle East more generally. We also understand the doubts of those who fear that the limited airstrikes the White House appears inclined to pursue, in order to punish Assad for using chemical weapons, have not yet been tied to a broader strategy, even though President Obama has said that Assad must go. And we are sympathetic to those frustrated that President Obama has done so little to make the case to a war-weary American people about why intervention in Syria is in our national interest, and that this is happening under the cloud of sequestration-mandated defense cuts.
But none of this should blind us from a larger truth: Regardless of how we got here, failure to authorize military force against Assad now will have far-reaching and profoundly harmful consequences for American national security.
This is no longer just about the conflict in Syria or even the Middle East. It is about American credibility. Are we a country that our friends can trust and our enemies fear? Or are we perceived as a divided and dysfunctional superpower in retreat, whose words and warnings are no longer meaningful?
Even if the U.S. had no stake in Syria’s civil war, that would not change one crucial fact about Assad’s brazen use of chemical weapons to murder more than 1,400 Syrian men, women and children: Having confronted a vicious dictator with a clear red line, it would be devastating for the U.S. to reverse course and back down in the face of the most blatant violation of that red line.
This isn’t a question of American integrity as some abstract principle of foreign policy. It is about what quite literally keeps the peace in a half-dozen flashpoints around the globe and makes our enemies think twice before attacking us or our friends.
In this respect, no one should have any illusions. Opposition to limited intervention in Syria now is an invitation for much bigger and more devastating wars that will break out if America is seen as withdrawing from the world. Inevitably, these larger and more costly conflicts will pull the U.S. into them.
Most immediately, failure to authorize a strike will be a green light for Assad’s most important ally and our most dangerous enemy in the Middle East—Iran—to speed toward nuclear weapons. It will also confirm the worst fears of our ally, Israel, and moderate Arab states like Jordan that the U.S. cannot be relied upon to stand by its commitments. This will dramatically raise the risks of a regional war that could upend the global economy.
The ripple effects of what we do in Syria will also extend far beyond the Middle East. In Asia, for instance, U.S. acquiescence in the face of Assad’s aggression would send the unambiguous message to long-standing allies like Japan and South Korea that Washington can no longer be counted on to stand with them against threats from North Korea and China.
Congressional rejection of an authorization for military force would also delight Vladimir Putin, who has sought to bolster his flagging legitimacy by thwarting and constraining American power—nowhere more so than in Syria. U.S. inaction there would undoubtedly embolden Mr. Putin as he flexes his muscles against Russia’s neighbors.
Conversely, authorizing force against Assad doesn’t have to mean giving the Obama administration a blank check. On the contrary, we hope Congress will seize the opportunity to press the White House to develop a smarter, stronger and more accountable Syria strategy—one that ensures any military action we take in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is tailored to advance our broader interests in the region. Those interests include preventing al Qaeda from getting a new foothold in Syria, laying the groundwork for ending the conflict there, stopping Iran from getting nuclear-weapons capability, and avoiding putting U.S. boots on the ground in the process.
We know how polarized the political climate in Washington is, but both parties should set aside domestic politics in the days ahead and put our country’s interests first. Despite the complexities of the conflict in Syria, the mistakes of the past, and the difficulties and drawbacks associated with anything we do in the Middle East, the most dangerous course of action at this juncture would be inaction.
That judgment should provide the foundation we need for a bipartisan strategy that protects America’s credibility and, in turn, advances our security and prosperity.
Messrs. Lieberman and Kyl, both former U.S. senators, are co-chairmen of the American Enterprise Institute’s American Internationalism Project.
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