Despite attempts at obfuscation, it is clear that the chemical attacks in Syria killing 1400 men, women and children were performed by the Syrian government run by Bashar Al Assad. Medical personnel treating the victims described the attacks--victims had blisters in their lungs which caused them to drown in their own fluids. Rows of body bags with dead children bearing glassy eyes is not something you forget soon. Any person who would order such attacks has lost his or her humanity. From a moral perspective, such behavior cannot go unpunished because it sets a precedent that such attacks are okay. War is gruesome enough. But there needs to be lines which cannot be crossed. Members of the global community have to draw lines and say that as human beings, there are certain forms of violence we simply won't accept, and gassing human innocent people like you are exterminating cockroaches or rats is totally unacceptable.
In his op-ed in the New York Times, Vladimir Putin makes the argument that if the U.S. decides to attack Syria on its own, against the wishes of the U.N. Security Council, then this promotes future lawlessness which will ultimately result in increased global violence. As a general notion this is true. However, there are some occasions on which we have to look beyond the letter of the law. What if we were back during WWII and we knew that the Germans were killing millions on an industrial scale but the Security Council voted to do nothing about it? While it would technically be a violation of international law to act unilaterally, from a moral perspective a strike which would end the mass killing would be required. The only caveat to this would be if doing something unilaterally wasn't likely to work or if it might make things worse. As it stands now, limited strikes by the U.S. to destroy chemical weapon stockpiles and strikes to damage Assad's ability to use them in the future is limited and not a means of widening the conflict. The Obama administration had no plans to put American boots on the ground. The plan was not for an Iraq style invasion.
There have been many criticisms of the Obama administration over his handling of this crisis. While some may argue that Obama's turning over of the decision to attack Syria to Congress was a means of political coverage by leaving the fault with Congress, in fact this decision was, from a practical point of view, correct. This set a precedent for future presidents to allow Congress to weigh in before military power is used. For American democracy, this is a good thing given the last 30 years of unchecked presidential power. Further, the debate is good for the country. Now some are criticizing Obama by saying he appears weak by going along with Russian plans to have Syria turn over its chemical stockpiles and avoid a strike. Innocent lives are at stake here. An attack on Syria would involve the death of at least some innocent people. At the end of the day, if this solution leads to Syria being chemically disarmed, this is a good outcome for everyone. Worrying about "saving face" should not be the primary goal of U.S. military policy. We don't live in feudal Japan.
In his op-ed piece, Vladimir Putin criticizes the notion of American Exceptionalism, the concept that America is some sort of unique country among all others. He is right about this. America, like any other country, has its strengths and its weaknesses. It is one of the freest countries in the world with respect to free speech and religious freedoms. Unlike Russia, you don't go to jail for criticizing the government. But America is also one of the most harsh when it comes to criminal punishment. It has more people incarcerated and for longer periods than any other modern industrial nation. It has some of the worst health outcomes and most inefficient health care systems. Other nations also believed they were special--Ancient Rome and the former British Empire also believed the same thing. It is called ethnocentrism. Religious folks call it "pride." The danger of American Exceptionalism is that it leads to self-righteous and predatory behavior. If you are the good guys and everyone else is the bad guy, then you can do anything and be justified.
While Putin is right about the dangers of American Exceptionalism, he is wrong about whether the U.S. would be justified in attacking Syria or not. We must look beyond pure legalism as embodied in U.N. law. An attack by the U.S. would not be American Exceptionalism, but the equivalent of the police sending in the SWAT team to stop a crazed madman from continuing a shooting spree. Putin's ad hominem attack against the U.S. is a diversion. The truth of the matter is that beyond his arguments is a strategic alliance to Syria that serves the economic interests of the Russian Federation. He will say anything to protect that alliance. If he can find moral grounds to make this defense, then so be it.
While Bashar Al Assad is a bastard and evil, the rebels fighting against him are the same or worse. Many of them are members of Al Quaeda. They have been known to commit atrocities themselves. Some of them have brutally murdered priests and other religious. The moron John McCain is hell bent on arming them. If the rebels win the war in Syria, things could be worse than they are now. History shows that arming the Taliban when they opposed the Soviets in Afghanistan was a terrible idea. It caused blowback and terrible consequences for the U.S. In the long run, it would be better for everyone if Assad remains in power. Giving the rebels weapons which will later be used against us is not a good idea. Further, by giving them weapons, we change the balance of power and cause the conflict to continue longer than if we just let Assad win and restore a sense of order. But this does not mean that if he refuses to disarm his chemical weapons, we shouldn't strike at these capabilities.
Obama has played this one out just fine. There are many reasons to bust his balls, but his handling of this matter is not one of them.