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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.

Reuters

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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.

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.

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