As a result of President Barack Obama's decision to ask the US Congress to support his call for "limited" strikes against the Assad regime, we find ourselves in the throes of a much needed yet incomplete national debate on the wisdom of the American policy towards Syria.
There are a few themes that have become central to the arguments supporting Mr Obama's position for military action. First and foremost is the fact that the horrible crime of using chemical weapons should not go unpunished. In making the US case, the secretary of state, John Kerry, has presented evidence tying this attack to the Assad regime.
Mr Obama and his supporters in Congress have argued that should the US stand by and allow this crime to go unpunished, there would be several negative consequences: the Assad regime would feel no restraint and could continue to use such weapons in the future with impunity; and the "international norm" against the use of chemical weapons would be breached, making other rogue states and non-state actors feel they too could act in such an unacceptable manner. Finally, the White House has argued that if the US were not to act forcefully, the credibility and leadership of the US would be seriously compromised.
Mr Obama initially described his intent to deliver "a shot across the bow" to "deter" the Syrian regime from any further use of chemical weapons. But as the debate evolved, the administration placed more emphasis on the intent to "degrade" the regime's capacity to deliver such weapons. Such is the argument made by those who are supporting the call for military action.
Opponents to the use of force have raised several issues, which they note have not been fully factored into the administration's consideration. Both hawks and doves have questioned, each from their own vantage point, the advisability of "limited" strikes. Hawks have criticised Mr Obama for not doing enough, pressing their case for more decisive action. As framed by one member of Congress, "doing more" would mean "ending the Assad regime and replacing it with a secular moderate democracy".
A leading voice among those who have been pressing the White House to do more, Senator John McCain succeeded in inserting language into the Senate bill calling for a more robust use of force (short of "boots on the ground") that would "change the momentum on the battlefield" in favour of the Syrian opposition.
For their part, doves have warned of the dangers of another US military engagement in the Middle East. They argue that the proposed limited strike would place the US on a slippery slope with today's calls "to do something" being followed by tomorrow's calls "to do more". They point to the "Powell Doctrine" enunciated by then chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell. In 1990, Mr Powell laid out conditions he stipulated must be met before the US should ever consider committing to military action - in essence asking that the costs, consequences, terms of engagement, and degree of support (internationally and domestically) be clearly understood. Those arguing against the strikes say that the administration has not yet provided clear answers to Mr Powell's terms for engagement.
One item in Mr Powell's list of conditions has proved especially troublesome: the need for broad international and domestic support. Opinion polls and town meetings with members of Congress have demonstrated that a vocal majority of Americans are profoundly weary of war. And while the administration blames the Russians for "holding the UN hostage" with regard to Syria (a charge that Arabs might say also describes the way the US handles issues involving Israel that come before the world body), the reality is that many other nations, including some close European allies, are either sceptical or outright opposed to the use of force in Syria.
Other issues that have been considered but not always given sufficient attention include: the consequence to diplomacy of the US becoming a combatant in this war; the impact that even the anticipation of military action has already had on accelerating the outflow of refugees - it is now estimated, for example, that one half of Syria's Christians have fled the country; how Syria's allies will respond - not just Iran and Hizbollah but Iraq as well; and how, despite their antipathy for the Assad regime, Arab public opinion will react to any US military action.
Some opponents of the use of military force propose alternatives like securing a broad-based UN General Assembly resolution referring the Syrian leadership to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and demanding that the Assad government join the 189 nations that have endorsed the Chemical Weapons Convention and destroy its stockpile of these banned materials. Ideas such as these, they argue, would isolate the regime without compromising the US role or further exacerbating the conflict.
In any case, the debate is on. What should be a concern and is lost in this conversation is the impact US military action would have on the final resolution of this conflict.
Both hawks and doves pay insufficient attention to the reality that the only resolution to the conflict is a negotiated settlement. This is where the emphasis should be. It is towards realisation of this goal that our pressure and diplomacy should be focused. And this is what we should be debating.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
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