Kathleen Parker / What price will we pay for 'credibility'?

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Undoubtedly you've heard that American credibility is on the line, thanks to President Barack Obama's vacillation on what to do about Syria. To bomb or not to bomb, that is always the question.

Mr. Obama, indeed, seems to be stricken with indecision. Two years ago, he said that Syrian President Bashar Assad must go. Last year, he drew the now-infamous red line on chemical weapons use.

Finally, after chemical weapons were used on civilians, most likely by the Assad regime, Mr. Obama called for military action. Then, after deploying Secretary of State John Kerry to make the case, he suddenly decided to pass the decision to Congress. (Note to Mr. Kerry: Google "Obama" and "under the bus.")

Now we're stuck with a near-certain military strike that could have disastrous repercussions -- all on account of a few presidential words carelessly uttered. It's all about our credibility, they say.

What does this mean, exactly? Merriam-Webster defines credibility as "the quality or power of inspiring belief." Applied here, it means that when you draw a line in the sand, you have to be willing to fight when that line is crossed.

Apparently, the defining atrocity for the Obama administration is the use of chemical weapons. Pentagon spokesman George Little says using chemical weapons "violates basic standards of human dignity."

Unlike, say, shooting protesters in the public square. Or chopping off limbs with machetes, systematic rape, enslavement, sex trafficking and down the list of atrocities we've witnessed without feeling compelled to respond. We may have turned a blind eye, but at least our credibility remained intact.

Why? Primarily, one supposes, because our president didn't draw a line. If your mind has wandered to the playground, where little boys get in fights over taunts and fragile pride, welcome to the sandbox. What say we all brush off our britches and think this one through?

Arguments favoring an attack include that Mr. Assad's willingness to use chemical weapons poses a threat to our allies and that other radical actors might become emboldened if the United States fails to act. Finally, terrorists might get their hands on Syria's chemical weapons and use them against us.

All true, though the terrorist threat seems more plausible if Mr. Assad is ousted. Otherwise, except for the method of killing, not much has changed in the two years since the Arab Spring became a bloody winter in Syria and elsewhere.

Recall, too, that we didn't intervene in 1988 when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to slaughter 3,000 to 5,000 Kurds. Do we really wish we had? Where does one draw the line on interventions to save innocents at the hands of their own countrymen? Whose civil war is off-limits?

Would that Mr. Obama's foreign policy were clear enough to provide answers.

More to the heart of the current debate is whether a limited missile strike would make any difference. The near-unanimous opinion is not really. From the porches and stoops of America's heartland to the marbled floors of the U.S. Capitol, the consensus is that a limited strike would merely aggravate matters and potentially lead to a catastrophic clash with global ramifications. How would that work for our credibility?

A strike of greater proportions reminds us of Colin Powell's better moment: You break it, you own it.

That Barack Obama hesitates seems the least of our concerns. He has created problems to be sure, speaking loudly and carrying a twig (as a reader wrote me). His "foreign policy" seems to be more afterthought (or political cynicism) than strategy.

Even so, lawmakers, including John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Nancy Pelosi, are lining up to support the president's plan for missile strikes. Let's hope that whatever the outcome, our best efforts have been directed by an abundance of caution rather than a prideful attachment to credibility. This is not to say that credibility isn't important, but the measure of one's credibility isn't only whether a nation is willing to stand its ground. It is also whether a nation is willing to be wise.

The United States still carries the biggest stick. We are still the bravest, most compassionate, generous nation in the history of mankind. When our allies need us, our credibility is beyond reproach. We always act decisively when the stakes are clear. The world knows this. It is our exceptional history, not a single, transitory man, that inspires belief.

And sometimes, it is helpful to note, a coiled snake is more effective than one that reflexively strikes.

opinion_commentary

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (kathleenparker@ washpost.com).


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