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Obama, Syria and the freedom of bad choices

There is a certain freedom in knowing that, no matter what you do, you will make someone mad. That is the situation in which President Barack Obama finds himself regarding Syria: he has no good options, so he is free to simply choose the one he believes is right.

He believes the government of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad must pay a price for using chemical weapons on its own people. He believes that price should be a missile strike delivered from U.S. warships because no one else is willing to stand up for the mandates of international law that have long said the use of chemical weapons is abhorrent. And he believes the United States Congress needs to endorse such action on behalf of a skeptical American public.

Mr. Obama also claims to believe he is not the only one with something at stake in this game. At a press conference in Sweden, the president said: "My credibility's not on the line. The international community's credibility's on the line. And America and Congress' credibility's on the line."

That, of course, has not been the conventional wisdom up to this point. The cable news, talk radio and inside-the-beltway punditocracy has yammered on about the pickle the president finds himself in, with little consensus about which of several sour pickles in this particular jar is worst for Mr. Obama.

The neo-cons who brought us the disastrous war in Iraq insist failure to mount an attack on Mr. Assad will embolden Islamic radicals and Iran. They say Mr. Obama's decision to delay the missile strike and take the issue to Congress is a signal of weakness.

Mr. Assad and his goons seem to agree with that second point, at least, and they are boasting about how they have forced America to back down.

Russian President Vladimir Putin threatens vague negative consequences if the U.S. strikes at his Syrian buddies while he continues to push the idea that Mr. Assad wouldn't dream of using chemical weapons.

The Europeans are appalled, as always, at the agony and death, but, other than the French, they are unable and unwilling to join in a robust response. At the United Nations, meanwhile, officials wait for inspectors to complete their analysis of the evidence of chemical weapons use knowing that, no matter what the inspectors conclude, the usual resistance from Russia and China that will prevent any kind of action.

In Congress, opinions are sharply divided. There is a right wing faction that will oppose anything Mr. Obama proposes simply because he is the one asking for it. There are members of both parties who see no vital American interest at stake in Syria and who have had more than enough of war in that part of the world. Conversely, there are those, like Arizona Sen. John McCain, who want regime change, not just a shot across Mr. Assad's bow. And there are those in between who think the president has got it about right.

On Wednesday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with a 10 to 7 vote, approved a resolution authorizing the missile strike, suggesting that passage by the full Senate is likely. The House, as always, will be a tougher sell for Mr. Obama. But, despite the political risk, taking the issue to Congress was the right move.

For Mr. Obama, it will be a good thing to share responsibility for whatever step is taken as well as blame for the inevitable blowback. For the rest of us, sick of war and skeptical about the effectiveness of a punitive strike, a real debate about the imperatives and perils of further engagement in the Islamic world's cruel chaos is a good thing. If, to the bullies of the Middle East, that looks like weakness, so be it. We can hardly expect them to understand the values of a democratic process. If it comes to it, our missiles will find them soon enough.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Horsey is a political commentator for the Los Angeles Times. Go to latimes.com/news/politics/topoftheticket/ to see more of his work.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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