09/09/2013 01:50 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

The Syrian Debate: Partisanship vs. Deterrence

The Congressional debate over on possible U.S. military action against Syria's use of chemical weapons covers the waterfront of reasonable arguments: military force is needed, it will be counterproductive, it will be too strong, it will be too weak, we will get into a quagmire, we will leave a vacuum, it will kill innocent people, it will save more people in the long run, etc.

Although there are many legitimate arguments in the debates over whether Congress should vote for a resolution to authorize a limited military strike against the Assad regime, one of the more disturbing reasons floating around is the view of some House Republicans that they should no because a yes vote will strengthen the President politically. Reports from Hill sources indicate that this is behind the lofty arguments proffered by some of the members who have opposed virtually anything that President Obama favors.

People who take this position have little sense of history, let alone an understanding of foreign affairs.

When President Reagan withdraw American peace keeping forces from Lebanon after Hezbollah -- with Iranian backing -- bombed the Marine Barracks in Beirut and killed 241 servicemen in 1983, the Arab world and others widely perceived this as a sign of American weakness. This was often cited by Bin Laden as a rationale for his plans to attack the U.S. and to expect to get away with it. This history, and some other weak responses to terrorist attacks, have reinforced the perception that the U.S. is a paper tiger.

The Syria resolutions are not a vote to uphold President Obama's prestige or image; they are a vote to support the need to take action to deter future Syrian and terrorist attacks using weapons of mass destruction. There is no ideal solution to Syria, and while there are understandable arguments to oppose a military action resolution, it would be shameful to vote against it for partisan political reasons. It would mean putting political considerations above the lives of possible victims in the future, including, possibly Americans.

Even if Syria has not used chemical weapons against American targets, a failure to take action against its attacks inside the country could embolden the Assad regime to let its ally Hezbollah use chemical weapons against us and/or our allies. Syria has a record of using terrorist groups, such as the old Abu Nidal Organization, as surrogates against other countries, as it did against Jordan in the 1980's.

We should not be paralyzed by the possibility of terrorist attacks against us. We have strengthened international cooperation against terrorists. A number of Hezbollah plots have been thwarted in recent years. The group is not ten feet tall.

Those who are opposed to military action on principle should understand that there are risks in doing nothing. Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to take risks in order to save civilian lives in the future. Nor can we remain on the sidelines silent because of concerns that hitting some Syrian military might indirectly help some of the jihadist elements in the Syrian opposition.

As a former colleague, retired ambassador Ed Marks noted, there is a resemblance to the Spanish Civil War, "when the dislike and fear (justified) of the Communists kept many away from helping the Republic. We know what followed in the 1940s. Now we are using our dislike and fear of the Jihadists (also justified) to prevent us from aiding the "democratic" and secular opponents of Assad. The future cannot be perfectly predicted nor can unintended consequences, but sometimes you have to take risks."

Or as Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and a former Air Force pilot said during the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing Wednesday: "God help us if we become a country paralyzed by fear."

It would be even worse, is if we become a nation where members of Congress are willing to let partisan political opposition to the President become more important than steps intended to save lives and deter future use of horrible chemical weapons.

It is not just the credibility of the United States that also is at stake, it is the credibility of a political party that has prided itself as being strong on U.S. National security.

The writer, a retired State Department counterterrorism official, previously served as a foreign policy staff specialist for three Republican members of Congress.

He is co-author of "U.S. Government Counterterrorism: A Guide to Who Does What."