Nicholas D. Kristof / Attacking Assad just might work

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It looks as if we'll be firing cruise missiles at Syria soon and critics are raising legitimate concerns: President Bashar Assad may escalate. Hezbollah may retaliate against Western targets. Our missiles may kill civilians. We'll own a civil war in a broken country. We'll be distracted from nation-building at home. Limited missile strikes would advertise our impotence.

There's some truth to all that, but we also need to acknowledge something fundamental: President Barack Obama's passive policy toward Syria has failed.

Mr. Obama reportedly rejected a proposal from Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm rebels in Syria because he feared getting dragged into the conflict. Now we're getting dragged in anyway, and everything we worried about has come to pass: The war has spread and destabilized Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. The hard-line Nusra Front rebels have gained strength, partly because we have spurned moderates. The Syrian army has won ground. Prolonged war has deepened sectarian hatreds.

More than 100,000 Syrians have been killed. At the rate the killings have accelerated, Syria could approach a Rwanda-size death toll by the time Mr. Obama leaves office.

I'm wary of military force, and I strongly opposed the Iraq war and the Afghan "surge." But in conjunction with diplomacy, military force can save lives. We saw that in Bosnia and Kosovo under Bill Clinton, and we saw that this year in Mali.

The problem is that overcommitments in Afghanistan and Iraq have left us with PTSD, so we're wary of engaging in Syria at all. Mr. Obama's passivity is easy to understand: Only one-fifth of the U.S. public favors arming rebels.

But when I was last in Syria, in November, I met a grandma who had already lost her husband, her son and her daughter-in-law to the Assad regime. She was living in her fifth home that year, a leaky tent, wondering who would die next and like everyone was desperate for international support. "We ask for God's help in ending this, and Obama's," she said.

What do we tell her? That we don't have the stomach to help her? That we'd rather wait until all her grandkids have died and the death toll has reached hundreds of thousands and embarrassed us to take firmer action?

Granted, there's a legitimate question about whether a day or two of missile strikes against Syria (seemingly the most likely scenario) will deter Mr. Assad from further use of chemical weapons. We can't be sure, but it seems plausible.

Chemical weapons are of only marginal use, simply one more way to terrorize and demoralize opponents. Mr. Assad has carefully calibrated his actions over the last few years, testing the domestic and international response before escalating.

At first he arrested protesters. Then his forces fired on them. Next his soldiers swept hostile neighborhoods. Then the Syrian army began firing rockets and mortars. Mr. Assad moved on to indiscriminate bombing. Then his army used chemical weapons in small attacks. Finally, his army appears to have undertaken a major assault with nerve gas. We've been the frog in the beaker.

There's some hope that destroying military aircraft or intelligence headquarters would persuade Mr. Assad that chemical weapons are not worth the cost and that he is better off employing more banal ways to slaughter his people. That's unsatisfying but would still be a useful message to other leaders. It would reinforce the international norm against weapons of mass destruction.

Are we making too much of chemical weapons? Probably less than 1 percent of those killed in Syria have died of nerve gas attacks. Yet there is value in bolstering international norms against egregious behavior like genocide or the use of chemical weapons. Since Mr. Obama established a "red line" against chemical weapons, his credibility is at stake: He can't just whimper and back down.

Syria is going to be a mess, whatever we do. The optimal window to intervene to achieve a quick end to the war may have closed. But if the coming clash gives us a chance to provide more support to preferred rebel groups, that would be worthwhile -- as we push for a negotiated settlement.

For all the risks of hypocrisy and ineffectiveness, it's better to stand up inconsistently to some atrocities than to acquiesce consistently in them all.


Nicholas D. Kristof is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.


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