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In vote on Syria strike, Americans face moment of truth for 'values that define us'

As Congress preps for a vote on a possible US punitive strike on the Syria regime, Obama frames the issue as one about 'values that define us.' That throws the question squarely on defining the American identity.

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    The USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, pictured here last May, has been moved with four other ships into the Red Sea in what officials call 'prudent planning' in case the ships are needed for military action against Syria.
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Before Congress votes on a resolution in support of an American military strike on Syria, it should carefully study President Obama’s Aug. 31 statement for the priorities he lays out. The statement will help guide the debate and influence the choice that the people’s representatives must make on whether to back an act of war.

What stands out in the statement is that Mr. Obama speaks more as a global leader than a national one. He starts from the basis of universal ideals, such as human dignity, constancy in values, and a shared responsibility of nations for global order. The congressional resolution proposed by the White House anchors the purpose of an American attack on the need to uphold “international norms, laws of war, and the international Chemical Weapons Convention.”

Obama hints that a limited strike on Syria’s military as a punitive act would reaffirm the identity of Americans as a people with a larger mission than narrow national self-interests. “We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us,” he said.

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Yet Obama also seems rightly humbled by the fact that previous presidents evoked the “values that define us” for past wars, with some of those disappointing Americans on promised outcomes. The Iraq war, for example, remains an open disappointment compared with its original purposes, such as establishing an Arab democracy. Even in the 2011 campaign in Libya, Obama’s initial humanitarian goal ended up being transformed into regime change and an uncertain future for Libya.

Wars rarely go as expected. But America’s mistakes in past conflicts, and even its hypocrisy at times, may not be enough to end the role it assumed in the 20th century in taking the lead to set up international norms, such as treaties on nuclear and chemical weapons and bans on terrorism and genocide. “We aren’t perfect, but this nation more than any other has been willing to meet those responsibilities,” he said.

If US lawmakers accept that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons, they, too, must weigh the balance between affirming America’s identity as a global ideal leader against a humility in knowing the history of America’s war-waging disappointments.

Since 2009, Obama has turned America inward in many ways to fix its many problems. But having long held a vision of a world free of the most destructive weapons, he has wisely taken the Syrian question to Congress as a test of whether Americans still uphold a universal idealism.

To win the argument, he tries to assure those wary and weary Americans that an attack on Syria won’t repeat the mistakes of recent wars. This one would not put US soldiers on the ground. It is not designed to solve Syria’s civil war, let alone resolve the deep sectarian fissures of the Middle East.

For those not persuaded of idealist action, Obama also says a strike on Syria would serve a specific purpose of “national security” – reducing the possibility that chemical weapons might end up being used against Americans or on US soil.

Other specific US interests probably drove Obama to seek an attack. Confronting Syria may be a signal to Iran that it cannot cross a red line in developing an atomic weapon. The US must also assist Israel in guarding against Syria’s chemical weapons possibly being set loose for an attack on Israel.

The vote in Congress will not really be a constitutional exercise. Obama claims legal authority to strike Syria without congressional approval. The United Nations, he suggests, is currently a failed mechanism to enforce global rules when Russia and China seem intent on wielding their veto threats to exert their power.

The vote is not even really a referendum. Pollsters can do that. Rather it is the president’s way of asking every voting American to reflect on the “values that define us.”

In the week or more that lawmakers will hear from constituents – and with the political freedom to vote their conscience rather than on a party line – Congress will either try to fix America’s historic but tarnished role or push it into a new but undefined future.

Obama has made his case. Too many past presidents didn’t pass the buck and instead opted for war. This president says an attack on Syria requires the buck to stop with all Americans.

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