Last night President Obama asked Congress to delay votes on a proposed punitive strike in Syria while the U.S. and our allies pursue new diplomatic openings. Even if the strike was proposed to gain diplomatic leverage, we must consider the moral dimensions of such threats. (More)

Last week, we argued that four major questions needed to be answered before deciding whether to launch military strikes against Syria as a response to a purported chemical weapons attack by the regime of Syrian dictator Bashir al-Assad against his own people. And as NCrissieB explained yesterday, the Syrian situation presents a number of moral dilemmas with no easy answers. Yesterday, President Obama gave a speech to our nation on the topic that we were hoping would answer or at least grapple with these questions and moral dilemmas. Unfortunately, with one big exception, Obama did not really do so in his speech.

What our President did do was publicly sign on to the nascent effort to reach a diplomatic solution by which Assad would turn his chemical weapons over to international authorities for destruction. By doing so, President Obama showed that there are steps we can take in response to the purported chemical weapons attack that do not involve military strikes. At the same time, there is a strong argument that these diplomatic developments likely would not have happened without the threat of military action by the U.S. As such, progressives such as myself who are generally (though not entirely) opposed to war are faced with yet another moral dilemma – what is the proper role of threatened military action that we think is misguided in achieving positive diplomatic ends that arguably could not otherwise be achieved?

Before turning to the new dilemma raised by these latest developments, it is important to review a couple of the questions we have about military strikes and the inadequate answers to those question. An initial question is whether we have met the necessarily high burden of proving that the Assad regime intentionally launched a chemical weapons attack. President Obama’s speech was heavy on the horrible suffering of the men, women, and children who died or were seriously injured due to exposure to some sort of chemical agent. And he importantly announced that we would wait on military strikes until UN inspectors reported the findings from their on-the-ground investigation. But beyond that, our President offered little more than a rehashing of the circumstantial evidence that many have found inadequate.

Another major question we have is what would a military strike achieve. President Obama contended that:

The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.

Along those same lines, Obama emphasized that the strike would not be just a “pinprick.” But, as we’ve argued previously, the larger the strike, the more likely we are to trigger a response from Syria or its allies in Iran or Russia. Such a response would almost certainly lead us to have to further escalate our involvement in Syria with no real endgame or even strategy in sight. While President Obama assured us that we could handle any retaliation by Syria against the U.S. or Israel, he did not address the fundamental question of how we would stay off the slippery slope towards having “boots on the ground” if the military strike leads to retaliation. And we still have no plan for how we try to ensure that a bloody war between different rebel factions would not break out if Assad were to be removed from power.

A third question we have is whether there are more reasonable and potentially productive options instead of a military strike. President Obama’s speech did address that question, and the answer is resoundingly yes. In particular, there is a growing international movement, that the Assad regime appears to be willing to consider, for Syria to give up its chemical weapons and sign on to the chemical weapons convention. Such a development would undeniably be a truly positive outcome in a number of ways which, combined with increased humanitarian aid (paid for with the money that we would have spent on military strikes) and sanctions that would cut off any business or government that does business with the Assad regime from access to any U.S. financial assets, could achieve real benefits for the people of Syria.

But the positive diplomatic developments create another moral dilemma stemming from the fact that our threatening military strikes probably played a significant role in getting Assad, Putin, and others to the point of even considering a diplomatic solution here. (Whether this was the Obama Administration’s strategy the entire time or simply a lucky result remains to be seen.) It seems likely that none of those parties would be talking about potential diplomatic solutions if there were not a credible threat of U.S. military action here. But does that justify threatening such military strikes when military action is as fraught with peril as it is here? And if you are using the threat of military action to achieve diplomatic aims, do you have to proceed with the military strikes if diplomacy fails even if such strikes are otherwise a bad idea?

Good answers to these questions are elusive, and may be at least partially situation specific. But we think at least two initial points should be made. The first is that if we are using military threats to attempt to achieve a diplomatic solution, we should try to avoid over-the-top rhetoric that simply inflames the situation. Unfortunately, we have not done so here. For example, Secretary of State John Kerry has gone way over-the-top by referring to the vote on military strikes against Syria as our “Munich moment” (referring to then-British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s misguided agreement with Hitler in 1938) and comparing Assad’s purported chemical weapons usage with that of Hitler. There is no disputing that Assad is a horrible and brutal dictator, and that Syria and the world would be better off with someone else in power there. But Hitler was a true threat to the world, who killed at least six million Jews in a monstrous act of genocide and who invaded numerous European nations and Russia. Assad, meanwhile, is a relatively minor dictator in the midst of a civil war, and is not invading other countries. Conflating him to the level of Hitler makes Assad seem far more important than he is, and only encourages the escalation of a situation where we should be trying to achieve peace.

A second point with regards to this latest moral dilemma is that the Syrian situation should serve as a reminder of how important it is that we build stronger and better functioning international institutions that can work to enforce international laws and norms regarding issues such as war. The simple reality is that the U.S. cannot and should not be the world’s lone police officer, especially when being so involves military strikes that arguably violate international law. Instead, in the absence of an imminent threat to the U.S. or its military forces, our default should be to try to get UN or other international approval before taking or threatening action against another country for an alleged violation of international norms or laws. Doing so could help reduce the need for using our own solo saber-rattling in an attempt to create a diplomatic solution.

A diplomatic solution is far from certain in Syria. But the fact that such a solution is even on the table now represents major progress. The new dilemma that such progress now creates for us is how we achieve such progress in the future without having to threaten unilateral military strikes that it would be advisable not to follow through on.