At Arlington National Cemetery, a United States infantryman guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, arrayed in his finest dress uniform, meticulous in his movements, with 21 precise, soundless steps and crisp quarter turns punctuating the exactly 21 seconds of exquisite, motionless attention shown at each station of his post. Last Friday, my 10-year-old daughter and I stood in reverent silence, witnessing for the first time the honor our country shows, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to those American soldiers "known but to God."
In such a setting, surrounded by 400,000 white tombstones, spreading in military precision over the hills, glorious, like soldiers arrayed once again in battle lines, ready to offer a second time the "last full measure of devotion" for their country, it was impossible not to be moved by gratitude and resolve. Gratitude for those who have sacrificed so much, and resolve that such sacrifices in the future are worthwhile.
We are, once again, on the verge of another war in the Middle East. The civil war in Syria, which has raged for nearly two and a half years, costing 100,000 Syrian lives, finally staggered onto the stage of our collective consciousness two weeks ago as images of the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children, some still writhing in terminal agony, exterminated by some sort of chemical weapon, flooded the international airwaves. All available evidence suggests that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made the fateful decision to use poison gas, killing upwards of 1,400 of his people on Aug. 21. It is the worst chemical weapons attack the world has seen since 1988 when Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Iraqi Kurds.
Over the last year, President Obama has repeatedly cautioned Assad against using chemical weapons, warning that if he made "the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences, and [Assad] would be held accountable." Since the events of late August came to light, some, including the president's own military advisers, have argued for an immediate, military response, demonstrating our resolve to back up our threats with action. But instead of rushing to strike, President Obama chose to exercise executive restraint by bringing a formal request to authorize military action to the United States Congress.
While many have criticized President Obama for making this appeal, arguing that it made him and all Americans look weak, I applaud him for doing so.
The momentous issue of war should never be a unilateral, hasty decision made by the chief executive. Our founding fathers understood this, vesting the responsibility for declaring and financing wars, not with the president, but with the Congress. It is only appropriate for the Congress to make the fateful decision whether or not to authorize military action in Syria.
I hope the Congress will carefully weigh both the short-term and long-term implications of a Syrian conflict. What would we hope to achieve with military intervention? Will our intervention make things better or worse for the Syrian people? What happens if Assad is defeated? Would we be trading a murderous dictator who has possessed, but only recently used, chemical weapons with al-Qaida backed rebels desperate to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction? Can a limited military engagement accomplish our goals or will a full-scale invasion be required? How much are we willing to spend, both in treasure and in American blood, to accomplish our goals in Syria?
Our soldiers in uniform stand ready to march into battle and die for this country. The least our leaders can do is thoroughly think things through.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and U.S. Senate candidate.