On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said in a speech at the State Department that it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, and called the attack “a moral obscenity.” This leaves President Obama, who in 2012 called chemical weapons a “red line” that would “change my calculus” when it came to dealing with Bashar Assad, in a tough position. I asked several liberal writers, politicians, and policy wonks what the United States can and should do about Syria’s bloody civil war. Some told me we’ve left ourselves no choice but to invade, while others argued that that’s the worst thing we could do. The majority said reaching accord with Russia, Syria’s powerful ally, is our last hope—but none seemed confident that Kerry will succeed at the bargaining table.
Peter Galbraith, Former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia and former adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
I’m not convinced yet that Bashar al Assad has actually authorized use of chemical weapons in these circumstances. It’s totally illogical for him to do it. That would be my first point, one really needs to verify the facts. If evidence isn’t very clear, then I wouldn’t take action. The other point I would make is, what’s so striking about the Syrian situation is the minorities have not joined the revolution. It’s almost entirely a Sunni revolution. And that should be more concerning to people in Washington than it is. It’s understandable why the Alawites would stay with Assad. Understandably, they fear they may face genocide if he is overthrown. But the Kurds, who were the first to rise up against Assad in 2004, simply don’t trust the opposition. They think they’re interested in a Sunni Islamic regime that will exclude them and maybe be dangerous to them. The Christians, the same thing, and the Jews, the same thing. I consider that lack of support like a canary in the mine, and we ought to pay more attention to it.
If our military intervention is not going to be effective we shouldn’t do it, and if it’s not clearly going to lead to a better situation, then we shouldn’t do it. I don’t think it’s going to tip the balance. If anything, it's just going to get more people killed, and it’s not clear that the alternatives are going to lead to anything better than the current situation. There’s a belief in the U.S. that whatever the situation is, we have to do something about it. That’s not necessarily true. If there’s nothing we can do that will be useful, if our intervention will not necessarily lead to a better outcome, then as horrible as the situation is, there’s not justification for actually intervening. I approach this as somebody who’s basically been an interventionist, and who was one of strongest hawks in the Clinton administration when if came to Bosnia, and on Libya.
Roger Cohen, columnist for The New York Times
There are no good options in Syria. But the President set a red line at chemical attacks. On all the evidence there has been a horrific one, trademark Assad family practice. The credibility of the United States is a precious, already eroded commodity. It cannot be compromised in this instance. But, you may ask, what is the point of raining Tomahawks on Assad's Syria with no strategy for an end game? Don't the Syrian people deserve better? They certainly deserve better than the Assad tyranny and this devastating war. My sense is that Assad's end would be hastened even by a limited U.S. attack. It should be framed as retribution for a heinous crime. It will not in itself solve anything—but then nothing will. It may, however, bring us closer to the end game. The United States should keep its word, stop turning in strategic circles and send a message to Assad on which the Syrian people may seize.
Jane Harman, former U.S. Congresswoman from California
My view is that U.S. rhetoric and U.S. action should be stronger against Russia right now than it is. Getting Russia on the right side of this is the critical way in my view to turn Syria. Obviously stopping the use of chemical weapons is imperative, but stopping the butchery by Assad of his own people is the bigger goal. If Russia would align with us on stopping all the butchery, that would be an important change, and Russia’s not there. For Russia to be on the wrong side of the use of chemical weapons is stunning, and we’re just not calling them out adequately. Our recent track record with Russia has not shown many results, but I think pulling the international community together to shame Russia is something we should be doing. We should use the leverage we have. The G20 is happening [September 5-6] in Russia. I would look at the G20 and at the United Nations General Assembly as two places where the international community comes together. It should be G19 against G1 going into Russia.
Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada
Sooner or later these chemical weapons are going to have to be under somebody’s firm control, and that’s the larger longer term issue. And we’ve been sitting here for three years with weapons of mass destruction sitting in the middle of a civil war, and even if we engage in cruise missile strikes I’m not sure that cruise missile strikes are going to change anything in that regard. So I join those who think that just a few cruise missile strikes are not going to solve this problem, because the problem is a civil war in which we have no leverage on either side and chemical weapons in the middle over which we have no control.
The solution is you get a diplomatic agreement with the Russians. You can’t do a military operation, certainly not a unilateral military operation, the only way you can possibly do this is to get the Russians to work with the Syrian regime to just outlaw and exclude the use of chemical weapons, and that may mean Russian troops safeguarding the weapon sites, or it may mean a joint international UN body supervising the sites. But short of a ground invasion, there isn’t any way to get control of these things. The chemical weapons problem can only be solved with a victory by the opposition, which is not likely. With a military intervention, which is not going to happen. Or by a diplomatic deal which puts the chemical weapons under some kind of international control jointly sponsored by the Americans and the Russians. It’s extremely important to do the effective thing, and the effective thing is probably a combination of targeted military force, if it’s following upon a really intensive effort at the UN to get the Russians to agree to a Security Council resolution putting these weapons under some sort of international inspection and control. And that’s the effective thing to do. The ineffective thing to do is just to hit ‘em with some cruise missile strikes just to say we don’t approve of what you’re doing.
Paul Berman, author and New Republic senior editor
We had better deter anyone else who is even dreaming of using chemical weapons, which means we should show to the world that here was Assad's fatal error, even if Russia was his protector. We should build up our own faction among the enlightened Syrians, even if our faction is pretty feeble right now. We should help our own faction overthrow the dictator. We should continue to help in what will then become yet another phase in the ever-morphing war against al Qaeda. We should recognize that, by helping the Syrians rid themselves of Assad, we may sober up the Iranian mullahs. All this we should have done a long time ago. There are crimes of commission and of omission, and so far we have been committing the latter, when we ought to be committing neither.
Kati Marton, human rights activist and widow of diplomat Richard Holbrooke
These situations, as I’ve observed over the last couple of decades, do not get better on their own, nor can they be settled on the battlefield. What is called for is fearless, creative, high-energy diplomacy. A regional diplomatic solution is what is called for, which would include obviously not only Syria and the Europeans and the Russians, but also Iran and Saudi Arabia. I would’ve hoped for that much sooner—I would’ve hoped for a high-energy, relentless diplomacy of the kind that Richard [Holbrooke] was known for. But there is no Richard Holbrooke. One of the things that I observed at [the Dayton Peace Accords] and observing Richard work is that there’s almost always a deal to be made, but the negotiator has to be willing to lay everything on the line. It’s got to be relentless. You can’t fly in and fly out. I always thought that we should start with the Russians, who are the primary enablers, and I think Secretary Kerry and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov have the makings of a good rapport.
We have to stand for something, and we have to draw lines somewhere, and I think president Obama is doing that. At this point, because they have so flagrantly crossed into another territory with the poison gas, I don’t see how we can avoid a more muscular reaction—that is to say some sort of use of force. But at the same time we start building a political or diplomatic follow-up. I don’t think we need to waste any time at the UN because it’s not going to happen there. I’m drawing from my 17 years with the uber-diplomat. I think he would be advocating force while advocating the eventual political and diplomatic solution.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.