As the United States seemingly prepares for military intervention in Syria, President Obama would be wise to heed his own words.
"The president does not have the power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation," Obama said.
The fact that Obama said those words in 2007, when he was candidate Obama, does not diminish their power or their truthfulness. But it does suggest that Obama was either naive or disingenuous while running for the highest office in the land. And it does suggest that actually being president requires more nuance than the simplistic rhetoric of being a candidate.
The United States is pondering how to respond to reports last week out of Syria, where dictator Bashar al-Assad apparently unleashed chemical weapons on civilians as part of his regime's ongoing civil war against rebel factions. The images — both photos and videos — have been horrific, showing scores of dead children and leading to worldwide outrage. Actions that not long ago could have gone unnoticed by the rest of the world now circumnavigate the globe in a matter of minutes.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that it was "undeniable" a chemical weapons attack took place. And White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was evaluating "a response to the clear use, on a mass scale with repugnant results, of chemical weapons," adding that "there is very little doubt that the Syrian regime … used those weapons."
That makes for a compelling argument in favor of international intervention. But if such intervention is to take place, it should be led by European or Arab nations — countries located much closer to Syria than the United States is.
As for U.S. involvement, Obama has painted himself into a corner. More than a year ago, he said, "We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized."
That puts Obama in a tenuous position. If, as the administration asserts, chemical weapons have been used, then that red line has been crossed. And that brings us to the question of an appropriate response.
For generations now, the United States has viewed itself and been viewed by many other nations as the world's police force. When there is trouble, America intervenes. Such intervention was necessary and effective in World War II, when genocidal dictators sought to seize control of much of the world. It was less effective and, probably, less necessary in Vietnam and Iraq. Those conflicts turned into quagmires for American interests, with the best possible outcomes being unworthy of the sacrifices made by U.S. military members.
That is the measure by which Obama and his administration should weigh possible intervention in Syria: What is the best possible outcome?
According to CNN, U.S. officials have spoken about hoping to dissuade Al-Assad from using chemical weapons while not altering the status of the civil war. That is a Pollyannaish desire. The notion of pulling off such an intervention is akin to trying to kill a fly in the living room by using a shotgun; there are bound to be unintended consequences.
It is those unintended consequences that should lead Obama to avoid any intervention in Syria. Yes, the actions of the Al-Assad regime have been crimes against humanity. But American presidents should have learned long ago that they can't police the entire world.