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American-Led Strike in Syria Risks Return to Reckless Cowboy Era

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Only a cynic could absorb the sight of children wrapped in body bags outside Damascus following the apparent chemical weapons attack and not feel a primal urge to see those who unleashed such evil punished.

Only an innocent could contemplate a world in which a brutal dictator can deploy such weapons without consequence and feel secure.

Yet only someone who has willfully dismissed the tragic lessons of the last dozen years could countenance the Obama administration unleashing its own lethal weapons against Syria absent the authority of the United Nations Security Council and without the active participation of a multi-national coalition. (And, no, France and Australia do not constitute enough.)

Only those who have forgotten how the United States and its allies wound up in a catastrophic war in Iraq could now charge toward military confrontation with Syria, absent a clear and credible annunciation of the intelligence that supposedly ties Bashar Assad's government to the chemical weapons attack, and without an agreed upon plan for how to handle the potential repercussions.

Yes, the Syria conflict of today and the Iraqi misadventure undertaken a decade ago present two different circumstances, as many experts have already emphasized. Iraq was in no way related to the incident that -- at least publicly -- provoked the American-led war, the attacks of Sept. 11 delivered by Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda partners-in-terrorism. In Syria, Assad has for years been meting out horrific brutality on those who oppose him, with visibly lethal consequences. The crime for which he now stands accused fits a pattern.

Where the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was manufactured from the beginning, the likelihood that Assad's government really was responsible for the chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb appears far more plausible.

And where the government of George W. Bush was palpably intent on waging a broad and transformational military campaign against longtime enemies in the wake of Sept. 11, President Barack Obama could not be more reluctant to take on the battle before him. He made his name as the man who opposed the Iraq war from inception. He has finally charted a course out of the companion disaster in Afghanistan.

But in one crucial regard, the rush to strike Syria is indeed reminiscent of the ill-fated march into Iraq: It would undermine the very thing it is premised on defending -- international norms and a supposed code of decency.

Put aside the bloviating about spreading freedom and democracy that accompanied the plunge into Iraq and go back to the narrative that sold the campaign -- the bogus intelligence that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell shared with the U.N. in seeking its blessing for the war: Iraq was a threat to the community of nations. Its very existence raised the prospect of mushroom clouds, as Bush's national security adviser at the time Condoleeza Rice famously intoned.

That was nonsense, a fact that needs no rehash here. Iraq's then-President Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. Even if he had, using them against the U.S. or a regional ally would have amounted to suicide -- the sort of basic common sense understanding that had enabled Saddam to endure for decades.

And now here is Obama, declaring in a television interview with PBS, that part of the reason Americans ought to fear Syria is that "chemical weapons that can have devastating effects could be directed at us."

Let us generously assume that this is merely unfortunate rhetoric, the usual fear-mongering employed by a commander in chief needing to prepare a dubious public that a now-inevitable military strike is in the national interest. The realpolitik conversation has it that the strike has two aims: to make clear that American dictates are to be taken seriously -- in this case, Obama's delineation of a red line barring chemical weapons -- and to reinforce an international agreement making such means beyond the pale.

Both of these supposed aims would be ill-served by a strike on Syria absent the active assent and support of other actors around the globe, and not least the U.N.

Making a case for a strike based on the first of these two notions, David Ignatius puts it this way in a column in The Washington Post: "What does the world look like when people begin to doubt the credibility of U.S. power? Unfortunately, we're finding that out in Syria and other nations where leaders have concluded they can defy a war-weary United States without paying a price."

But that's an idea that urgently needs updating, a frame that retains greatest currency only in the place of its minting -- Washington.

In much of the world, governments and peoples fundamentally inclined to casting their lot with the U.S. have spent much of the past decade assaulted by realities that challenge those proclivities. And this is hardly of help to the narrow American interest or broader multinational concerns. A self-appointed global cop seen as morally reprobate, hypocritical and dismissive of the laws it is supposed to enforce does no favors to stability or security, let alone loftier aspirations like justice and progress on problems like climate change.

Begin with the ill-conceived, poorly executed post-war occupation of Iraq, and the torture of combatants there in American-run military prisons. Consider the kidnapping of suspected militants by American authorities on streets of multiple cities, and the detention of the people seized in the cells of Guantanamo, a festering sore on the American image as moral authority. Contemplate the drone strikes unleashed by a superpower on villagers stuck in places that constitute venues for a nominal global war on terror.

These are not realities that will simply be forgotten by the intended audience for the military strikes in Syria, those powers who are supposed to deduce that international norms are really operative. You can't run torture prisons one day and the next day all but unilaterally unleash missile strikes as moral curative without being seen as a less-than-honest broker among the very community of nations in whose name you act. You need a coalition, backing from the U.N. And if you don't get those things, taking action may well be worse than no action at all.

Obama must surely understand this as deeply as anyone. At home, his presidency traces its existence to American revulsion over the parochial, faith-based, fact-free reign of his predecessor. Around the world, his embrace as a moral authority -- his Nobel Peace Prize! -- reflects a deep sense of relief that the reckless cowboy who occupied the White House before had been replaced by a thoughtful, sophisticated person with international experience and respect for other cultures and values.

The standard for the legitimacy of a strike on Syria ought to be very high -- high enough to require a clear motive and objective, and a demonstrably shared plan of action among a multitude of global actors. But the U.N is missing. The Arab League is missing. Even Great Britain is now on the sidelines. It is fair to shame and pressure these powers to go along. It may be imperative. But failing to curry such support does not constitute justification for going it almost alone.

If the objective is indeed defending international norms, how can one justify a strike authorized only by the U.S. and two stalwart allies?

If this is about international law, how can one countenance rushing ahead before the U.N. inspectors complete their work and issue a report?

If this is really about justice, is there no place for due process and critical scrutiny of the intelligence before letting loose with lethal power?

And let us not kid ourselves in the face of a concerted rhetoric effort by the Obama administration to downgrade what is really unfolding. We hear of narrow limited strikes, targeted surgical procedures, and it's as if robots will reach into Syria, avoid all the people, and defang the military capabilities of the Assad regime.

But what is being prepared -- by most accounts a two-day bombardment of Syrian installations with cruise missiles fired from American destroyers -- is an act of war. It may well prove to be a justified act of war, provided it is supported by a community of nations and based on credible intelligence. But war is what this is.

War, it ought to go without saying, is a risky, unpredictable pursuit. You fire missiles at another country and people will die. If we have learned anything from the past decade, it's that military campaigns have unintended consequences. We could miss the intended targets or learn that the things we were aiming at had other uses than those we understood. We could provoke a strike on Israel from Iran. We could incite unforeseen violence from the Assad regime. And when one of those things happens and some fresh hell breaks loose, genuine moral leadership capable of speaking for international norms had best be supported by more than a couple of far-flung allies going along on a ride that has not been adequately mapped out.

For Obama, this poorly sold, as-yet ill-defined intervention into another seething conflict in the Middle East presents grave risks: He could wind up representing the sort of American power defined by his predecessor, the shoot first-contemplate later mode of operation that has served no interests beyond the Islamist militants for whom such violence functions as a valuable recruiting aid.