More than 1,400 people dead, 400 of them children, from rocket attacks spreading a chemical agent, most likely sarin, on civilians living outside Damascus. Those gruesome deaths ought to be the focus of U.S. and world attention — people suffering, convulsing, vomiting, laboring to breathe their last as the muscles around their lungs are paralyzed.
Surely, there was a time when a decisive U.S. military response to such outrageous behavior by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad would have been a foregone conclusion. And support from our traditional allies, particularly in Europe, would have been a straightforward matter, too. Use of weapons of mass destruction is supposedly off limits.
Yet, here we are. In post-Iraq America such murderous behavior is met with what? Much uncertainty. President Barack Obama hasn't handled the response well. Last weekend's about-face — taking us from the precipice of action to a sudden consultation with Congress — hardly projects strength to Mr. Assad or any other defiant dictator sitting on a pile of chemical weapons. Take North Korea's Kim Jong Un, to name but one.
Make no mistake, Congress ought to have a say. And we don't endorse starting a full-blown, boots-on-the-ground war with Mr. Assad either, not when the opposition might yield a regime that's as bad or worse than his. But the back and forth here — yes, we'll take action of some kind for some purpose and then no, we won't without a vote — might be the worst of all possible worlds, a message of aimless dither, not steady resolve. All this consultation might have taken place back when the White House was talking about "red lines" around chemical weapons weeks or months ago.
President Obama isn't the only one to blame, of course. The British parliament voted against supporting an international response to Syria's chemical attack. The British! When the U.S. can't rely on its most reliable ally for support after that nation's own intelligence services said it's "highly likely" the Syrian military was behind the attack, there's some fundamental shift in the traditional world order going on.
Is the Obama administration really so inept at diplomacy that it can't muster support in London for a limited response based on far more evidence of WMDs than the Bush administration ever presented? But ah, that's the problem, isn't it? Once burned, twice shy, the British are not interested in supporting military action in the region after the embarrassment that was Iraq.
And so it goes. The U.S. hasn't built up much of a coalition of support for standing up for those civilian deaths in Syria or demonstrating that the world won't tolerate the use of chemical weapons. At least not a coalition any broader than us and the French. The Iraq legacy lives on. The price of that war continues to be paid — in innocent blood.
At least the debate in Congress will be revealing of how the Republican outlook on the world has shifted — or perhaps how deeply partisanship has infected that view. Mr. Obama will need GOP support for any military action, and many in the party not named John McCain and Lindsey Graham are suddenly sounding dove-ish.
We only hope Secretary of State John Kerry is wrong and that U.S. inaction won't give Iran or the various terrorist organizations operating in the region a cue to strike. After all, if chemical weapons are tolerated, then what other behavior might cause the U.S. and the Europeans to look the other way rather than dispatch the military?
Clearly, President Obama needs to get back on the soap box and make the case to the American people about why a limited, strategic military response is essential. Dispatching Mr. Kerry or his other top aides to Congress isn't enough. The public needs to understand the heinous nature of these weapons and the cost of inaction.
Meanwhile, Republicans are going to have to resist their usual impulse to embarrass Mr. Obama at all costs and stand up for human rights and the national interest. Support for action from House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor Tuesday morning was heartening, but their views have not always meshed with an increasingly isolationist (and partisan) GOP caucus. And Democrats are going to have to challenge their usual instinct to resist military intervention for anything short of another Sept. 11. This is a moral outrage, an act of thuggery and mass murder that requires an appropriate and meaningful response.