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Editorial: Putting Syria question to Congress is the right step

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the ongoing situation in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 in Washington. Obama says he has decided that the United States should take military action against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack. But he says he will seek congressional authorization for the use of force. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Barack Obama delivers remarks about the ongoing situation in Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013 in Washington. Obama says he has decided that the United States should take military action against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack. But he says he will seek congressional authorization for the use of force. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Purchase photo reprints »

He wasn’t elected to avoid hard decisions, President Obama said Saturday, and his decision to seek congressional approval for strikes against the Syrian regime — perhaps even more than the prospective military action itself — will stand as one of the most difficult of his presidency.

It appears to us the right decision, but it is too early to know whether the world will be any better for it.

No public servant is second-guessed as much as the occupant of the White House. A president’s judgments are compared to all who came before and then applied as precedents restricting all who follow.

Not since World War II has a president sought approval by Congress to declare war. While President Obama said Saturday he believes he holds the authority to act independently of Congress, he argued that as the world’s oldest constitutional democracy, the U.S. should put the matter of punishing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the use of chemical weapons against his own people.

In a draft resolution sent to Congress, the president says the point of a strike would be to “deter, disrupt, prevent and degrade” Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. It asks Congress to authorize “necessary and appropriate” use of the U.S. military to those ends.

That means members of Congress must also grapple, as they should, with the question the president put this way Saturday: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas children without consequence?” The debate in Congress could start with Senate committee proceedings Tuesday. As we are reporting in today’s newspaper, members of the Massachusetts delegation support the president’s decision. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said all avenues of diplomacy must be exhausted, and we agree.

If Congress says no, and the president accepts that decision, some will say Assad and his allies won this round and that by involving another branch of government, Obama has hobbled American might, given a tyrant a pass on the murder of more than 1,000 civilians and saddled Congress with a decision he should have owned as the one who initially set the chemical weapons “red line” against Assad.

But in taking the step to involve Congress, Obama has bought time that will allow evidence of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to mount. It isn’t clear whether tests on samples collected by a UN team will be available in time for the congressional debates. But the “high confidence” cited by the administration in attributing the attack to Assad’s forces (particularly the fact that rockets were launched from an area controlled by the regime) will likely strengthen, not diminish. Members of Congress will have access to intelligence reports that go beyond what’s being made public.

Despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim last week that this administration learned from mistakes of the Iraq war, there is wide mistrust — because of phony intelligence about weapons of mass destruction — of government justifications for war. Involving Congress allows evidence about the use of chemical arms in Syria to be more thoroughly verified.

The U.S. military response will come, if it does, when it does — with no loss of effectiveness as a blow to the regime and as a statement to the world that the U.S. will act to uphold international conventions against the use of chemical weapons.

A military strike, the president said Saturday, will demonstrate that the U.S. follows through on the accords it signs. In making that point, he sought to reposition this crisis not as his alone — stemming from his “red line” vow — but the country’s as a whole. In that sense, the coming debate will test whether the American people are ready, war-weary or not, to oppose actions that kill civilians on a mass scale.

Obama’s critics hounded him for not rushing to protect civilians in Libya. When the president did act militarily, he did so with support from the UN and the Arab League — which he lacks today on Syria. The British Parliament’s vote last week against joining a military strike against Syria cost Obama more international backing, which he has wisely sought. Facing a new geopolitical situation, the president found a new answer at home through Congress. In the past week, some of those same critics demanded that he consult leaders of Congress, which he did last week with House Speaker John Boehner and others in both parties.

The president did not say whether he would be bound by what Congress decides. He is unlikely to act without it, however, after saying the people’s representatives deserve a say. But as events evolve in Syria and the Mideast, the president remains obligated to respond, as commander in chief, to developments. While Congress may say no to meting out a punishment to Assad for the Aug. 21 gas attacks outside Damascus, the president must make his own call on whether a changing situation demands yet another solution. It is possible that a vote by Congress to punish Syria could move Assad in ways a strike alone would not, since it would signal an entire nation’s resolve to stand against attacks on civilians.

In the first half of his Saturday address, President Obama made a strong case for a limited strike against Assad’s regime. As Congress takes this up, it should instruct the president not only on the appropriateness of military action, but of its specific aims and limits.

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