Critics of the president do no one a favor by seeming to make our Syria decisions simply good or simply bad. Of all the choices of action over the last two years,none has been good. For all this time, all choices have been bad. Suddenly, in the last month the choices have gotten even worse. Someone has used nerve gas. With that, for the first time, has come the very strong moral case for acting to restrain the use of chemical weapons. Those weapons are horrible. The president presents an accurate case. On the other hand destructive force would be solely for the purpose of sending a message. But it would send different and ultimately uncontrollable messages to Assad, al Qaeda, and the other rebels. No one knows how any of these might interpret the message. They might all interpret it to the disadvantage of the United States. Using force to send a message to deter force is at best contradictory and might even be pointless.
The president in his speech on September 11 recognized these contradictions and now has had the poise to slow down and take a course that might both reduce the chemical weapons in Syria’s hands and avoid the use of force by us. That would be an amazing turning of two evil choices into one good result. That is not, as the critics say, a lack of leadership. To the contrary. If diplomacy works, it will have been genius. If George W. Bush had been equally responsive to the evidence concerning Iraq we would have avoided that massive disaster. Leadership, Dick Cheney to the contrary notwithstanding, is not putting on blinders and rigidly moving toward grievous error. For critics now to suggest a lack of leadership because the current president has not been willing to bow his head Bush-like and bull forward, is witless.
Media attacks upon Obama because he acts cautiously in a situation of unfathomable complexity are reminiscent of those leveled against Abraham Lincoln as he painfully navigated his way through awful, apparently contradictory, choices during our civil war. Lincoln faced the contradiction between his principled desire to maintain the union and his overwhelming compassion for soldiers in combat. This was an awful choice and he could not simply wave a wand and make it go away. Neither can Obama wave a wand and make the contradictions presented to him by the conflict in Syria simply go away.
I do not support the use of force in Syria. The consequences would be impossible to predict and the precedent perhaps as bad as the president hopes it would be good. But neither do I support critics, either on the right or left, who claim with moral certainty, that in this ambiguous situation fraught with conflicting moral imperatives, they know the absolutely right thing to do. This is a situation that has no absolutely right thing to do, but, to the contrary, has conflicting moral imperatives. As we navigate forward in this desperate situation, a little humility would serve us all.