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Jacobs: U.S. must not act alone in Syria

Mike Jacobs

Disgust. Disappointment. Doubt. And dread. Those are reactions to events in Syria and the crisis they've presented to the world.

Of course, chemical attacks on innocent people are reprehensible and should be punished.

But do disgust and idealism mean that the United States should strike at Syria?

We think not.

Rather, it is a job for the world.

Unfortunately, the United Nations is paralyzed. There's a slim chance of international agreement, one that North Dakota's U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp grasped at in a resolution, giving Syria 45 days to come clean and opening a window for negotiation with the Russians, who have so far blocked any U.N. action.

That's a better option than a unilateral -- or nearly unilateral -- strike.

But it's hard to see what success can come from this approach. The Russians are mulish on the subject.

All of this is disappointing.

That leads to analysis of the other option, and here the doubt comes in.

Statements from the administration haven't been reassuring. Secretary of State John Kerry's specificity about the death toll, breaking the number into adults and children, was eerily reminiscent of a speech given by another well-meaning secretary. Remember Colin Powell's speech justifying war against Iraq? The weapons of mass destruction that Powell described so meticulously turned out not to exist.

The answer to another very question is not clear: Exactly which is the side we should be on? The Syrian government certainly is a bunch of thugs, but they've protected diversity in that country. It's far from clear that a rebel government would do that. It could be dominated by radical Islamists or even terrorists.

So, weakening Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might lead to consequences that we can't imagine and wouldn't want to face.

No amount of reassurance can guarantee that the aftermath of a U.S. strike will be contained. That worries American military planners. It also worries them that there's no possibility of surprise in a strike. The Syrians will have prepared for it -- but we can't know exactly how.

Then there is the president's handling of the crisis. Barack Obama has made a retaliatory strike a matter of personal and national honor. Plainly put, though, an ill-considered statement declaring a "red line" isn't a reason to go to war.

The president -- a constitutional scholar -- initially insisted that he had the authority to go ahead with a strike. The he decided instead to ask Congress, thus creating a way out of the crisis.

Congress ought to take the opportunity to express clearly the sentiment of Americans about a potential strike and to establish dramatically that it is Congress that declares war, not the president.

Such an outcome would demonstrate that even the most powerful leaders are responsible to their people.

It would show the world that we Americans take the rule of law seriously, and that we don't act without proper authority.

It would be a powerful display of representative democracy in action.

Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald,

which is a part of Forum News Service.

Email him at