As President Obama seeks congressional approval to intervene in Syria, it's obvious that the universe is upside down.
To summarize: A world leader who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize seems primed for military action. Some liberal Democrats who opposed U.S. intervention in Iraq — no doubt because it was launched by Republican George W. Bush — appear ready to fall in line behind Obama and punish Bashar al-Assad for what the administration claims is clear evidence that he used chemical weapons against his own people. Some GOP hawks suddenly have morphed into doves who either oppose a military strike altogether or appear to be searching for an excuse to stay on the sidelines.
Meanwhile, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted on social media: "So we're bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria? And I'm the idiot? ... President Obama wants America involved in Syria's civil war pitting the antagonistic Assad regime against equally antagonistic (al-Qaida-) affiliated rebels. But he's not quite sure which side is doing what, what the ultimate end game is, or even whose side we should be on."
That almost sums it up. Except for one small detail. Syria is not bombing Syria. It's not that simple, Sarah.
Instead, a ruthless dictator, desperate to maintain power, is punishing his own people with a kind of warfare that has been banned in the civilized world for nearly 100 years. A big guy is brutalizing the little guy. Someone has to defend the little guy, and teach the dictator — and all other authoritarian leaders out there who are watching this standoff with great interest — that international codes of conduct apply to them just like anyone else.
And yes, of course, it was a mistake for Obama to draw a "red line" at the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But that is history. It doesn't matter how we got here — in this no-win situation in which we're trying to decide between bad choices where every path could lead to the same dark outcome (an attack on Israel, regional war, the strengthening of unsavory elements). The only thing that matters is what we do now.
Obama was right to declare that the United States should take military action against Syria, because "in a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted." But he was wrong to announce his plans to the world, give up the element of surprise and allow the Syrians to prepare for an attack. And he was foolish to go to Congress and put a matter as important as this at the mercy of partisan sniping and those isolationists who want to turn away from the role that the rest of the world expects the United States to play.
We don't have to be the world's policeman, but — like it or not — we are the world's moral referee. We haven't always done that when we should have, as when the United States turned a blind eye to what was happening in Germany in the 1930s. That's no excuse for refusing to do it now. We defend the powerless and voiceless. This is what America does. It is tough and often thankless work. But it is also indispensable work if we aspire to live in a civilized world.
The good news is that House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and others in both parties said Tuesday that they support Obama's call for action against Syria.
These lawmakers could be key allies in winning over the votes of their colleagues.
The bad news is that there is also sure to be a strong contingent of Republicans in the House and Senate who oppose taking action. There almost always will be. Some are paralyzed by what they see as a menu of unpleasant choices. And some are partisans who are hard-wired to oppose this administration.
This last group of lawmakers is likely to include Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who recently said that the United States should take military action only in pursuit of a clear and attainable national security goal and not to "send a message or save face."
Rubio doesn't get it. Just like Palin doesn't get it. This isn't about Obama. It's about the excruciatingly difficult task that, as president of the United States, Obama is required to carry out.
Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.