The problem, outlined by numerous pundits, experts, journalists and observers, boils down to a singularly dispiriting conundrum: No good can come of intervening in Syria, but inaction is a moral and political impossibility.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appealed for patience and restraint, adding that any decision on military action should wait until the UN weapons inspectors have finished their work.
"Diplomacy should be given a chance... peace [should] be given a chance," he said.
He said the inspectors would wrap up Friday and report to him as soon as they leave Syria Saturday.
In contemplating a “punitive strike” on the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons on civilians, the United States is flouting international law, which demands UN approval for military action outside of a direct, imminent threat to a nation’s security.
The UN Security Council is extremely unlikely to give its sanction to action in Syria. Russia, a staunch ally of the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad, can and doubtless will exercise its veto power. Russia has already dispatched warships to the Mediterranean in response to the US stationing ships there.
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Without apparent legal justification, President Barack Obama's administration is seeking legitimacy through like-minded allies; some of these, such as Britain, were initially committed but have since gone a bit wobbly.
Furthermore, critics say, the US government lacks a clearly defined endgame and a well thought-out strategy. A purely punitive strike has little chance of changing the balance of power on the ground. It carries risks of civilian casualties and the possibility of dragging Western powers into a prolonged and bloody conflict.
On the other hand, the world has seen the pictures of dead children. Doing nothing feels very wrong.
President Barack Obama also has his own credibility, as well as the power and prestige of the US, riding on his notorious “red line” on Syria.
“Washington in particular seems to have become convinced that nonaction on its own red line would imply a presidency that has replaced gung-ho with gun-shy to an extent that might undermine global assessments of American willingness to deploy hard power,” a team of Middle East experts on the European Council on Foreign Relations writes.
CNN’s Piers Morgan summed it up succinctly on Wednesday night: “It’s a complete mess,” he told viewers.
Legality versus legitimacy: Does it really matter?
“Using force in a situation like this could be seen as legitimate internationally and the right thing to do,” David Kaye, a former State Department lawyer, told The Washington Post. “But that’s different from saying it would be legal: It wouldn’t be, unless you had authorization of the Security Council.”
Absent UN backing, Washington has been scrambling to come up with a justification for a strike against Syria.
Several possible rationales have been floated. “Humanitarian intervention” were the stated grounds for former President Bill Clinton’s bombing campaign of Kosovo in 1999. But, as Franklin Spinney outlines in a detailed and polemical piece in Counterpunch, a left-wing website, this is an imperfect analogy at best.
“I found it truly scary to read that some high officials in the Obama administration are so disconnected from reality that they consider the 1999 war in Kosovo to be a precedent for justifying limited cruise missile strikes in Syria,” he writes, going on to outline how the bombing campaign in Kosovo did not produce the desired results. Instead of a two or three-day round of “precision bombardment,” the Kosovo campaign wore on for almost three months and failed to unseat Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Another possibility is a move under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which outlines the right to collective self-defense.
If Turkey were to appeal to its NATO allies for protection, given that it has endured several strikes from neighboring Syria, the US could use this as at least a temporary legal fig leaf, according to CNN’s Peter Bergen.
International norms against the use of chemical weapons are also a possibility, but provide a legally tenuous justification for force. In a Thursday press conference, White House spokesman Josh Earnest repeatedly referenced the international norm that does not abide the use of chemical weapons.
“Protection of that is a priority for the president,” he said, adding, “We cannot allow a totalitarian dictator to use weapons of mass destruction like that with impunity.”
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Shashank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank, said the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning chemical weapons has no enforcement provisions and has never been employed to justify a strike.
And Syria never signed the 1993 follow-up Chemical Weapons Convention, he added.
So Washington’s attempt to court allies is one way it is “compensating for being on shaky legal ground” without a UN Security Council resolution, Joshi told The New York Times.
Britain and France initially seemed committed to the venture, but British Prime Minister David Cameron is running into problems at home with the Labour Party.
On Wednesday, Cameron announced that a second parliamentary vote would be required before Britain could take part in any strikes on Syria.
Iraq hangs over Britain’s deliberations like Banquo’s ghost, with the bitter memory of mythical weapons of mass destruction propelling a “coalition of the willing” into a multiyear war that cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.
No relationship is that special.
In an interview with the PBS Newshour Wednesday evening, Obama laid out another possible rationale for intervention: national security.
The president posited that Assad’s stories of chemical weapons could ultimately threaten the homeland.
“When you start talking about chemical weapons in a country that has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world, where, over time, their control over chemical weapons may erode, where they’re allied to known terrorist organizations that, in the past, have targeted the United States, then there is a prospect, a possibility, in which chemical weapons that can have devastating effects could be directed at us,” he told reporters Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.
“Threat to national security” is the basis on which the US launches drone strikes into countries with which it is not, technically, at war, such as Yemen and Pakistan.
Speaker of the House John Boehner sent a sharply worded letter to the president on Wednesday.
“Now, having again determined your red line has been crossed … it is essential that you provide a clear, unambiguous explanation of how military action … will secure US objectives and how it fits into your overall policy,” Boehner wrote.
Boehner went on to emphasize that declaring war is a power granted to Congress under the Constitution, and the president ignores that at his peril.
Numerous observers pointed out Wednesday that this is not just a case of the legislature being its usual obstructionist self. In fact, a young candidate for president, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, said much the same thing in a 2007 interview.
“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” Obama said.
Another Democratic candidate at the time, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, went further. It’s an impeachable offense to bypass Congress on matters of war, he said.
“It is precisely because the consequences of war — intended or otherwise — can be so profound and complicated that our Founding Fathers vested in Congress, not the president, the power to initiate war, except to repel an imminent attack on the United States or its citizens,” Biden said on the issues page of his former campaign website.
Yet where you stand depends on where you sit, and these men now have very big chairs in the executive branch.
If the strike goes perfectly, with no civilian casualties; if the Assad regime meekly takes its punishment and does not strike back; and if the damage is sufficient to deter any future use of chemical weapons, then the world will likely applaud, no matter how the strikes were authorized.
But that’s a lot of “ifs.”
Muddled goals, lack of strategy
More troubling, perhaps, is the lack of clarity surrounding the strikes themselves.
Other than administering a rap on the knuckles to the Assad regime, it’s unclear what can be accomplished by a punitive strike.
"Punitive action is the dumbest of all actions," Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington, DC, told Foreign Policy magazine. "The Assad regime has shown an incredible capacity to endure pain and I don't think we have the stomach to deploy enough punitive action that would serve as a deterrent."
Harmer is the author of a widely circulated study showing how the United States could degrade key Syrian military installations on the cheap with virtually no risk to US personnel. The study caught the eye of Sen. John McCain, who recommended it as a counter-argument to the bleak assessment of options outlined in July by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Harmer, speaking to Foreign Policy, said he never intended that his study be taken as a road map for action.
"I made it clear that this is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives," Harmer said. "Tactical actions in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive."
Retired Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander in chief of US Central Command, also cautioned against thinking of a quick fix in Syria. Speaking on CBS News on Thursday morning, he said the United States could likely be drawn into a “slow-rolling campaign” that could escalate.
“This cannot be a one-and-done,” he said. Still, the United States has to “something,” he emphasized.
The question is, what? And what happens next?