The alternative is not war or even an open-ended commitment. Instead of a punitive action designed to make a point about American resolve, the United States, acting with European and Middle Eastern allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, could reduce the Syrian regime's capacity to perpetrate mayhem through a much more robust campaign of stand-off strikes on Syrian artillery and airfields, military and intelligence facilities, Assad's palace, and other key sites. At the same time, they could step up the pace of training and arming the opposition while continuing to pursue the possibility, however remote, of a diplomatic settlement to the conflict.
I recognize that on a strict calculation of U.S. national interest, the arguments against acting forcefully are at least as strong as the arguments in favor and that from the viewpoint of a president rightly consumed with his domestic agenda, the national weariness with foreign adventures tips the scale toward doing as little as possible. But what all these hardheaded calculations leave out is the well-being and survival of the Syrian people. The death toll is over 100,000; roughly a quarter of the country's 22 million people are internally displaced or refugees abroad. The humanitarian crisis has reached staggering proportions.
This is a president who has endorsed the "responsibility to protect" and established an Atrocities Prevention Board. His national security advisor, Susan Rice, and his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, both made their reputations as passionate advocates of action in the face of mass atrocities. Yet the United States is preparing to take military action in a way that it knows in advance cannot diminish the violence -- indeed, is not designed to do so. I wonder whether either Rice or Power -- each the Madeleine Albright of today -- is putting up a fight against the latter-day Colin Powell. Neither would be inclined to defer to the bars on Dempsey's shoulder, but both may feel that he's right.
The liberal internationalist of 20 years ago did not flinch before the idea that the United States must stand for principle abroad, as it seeks to do at home. That language has now become faintly embarrassing among serious students of foreign policy, at least on the center-left; it's now the province of conservatives like Sen. John McCain. We are so wised-up now, so hardheaded and clear-eyed. We know better than to confuse interests with values. We know not to tax the patience of the deeply impatient American people. We know that national power begins at home. We know so much that we didn't know in 1993. It seems that the Syrian people chose the wrong time in history to rise up against their monstrous ruler.