President Barack Obama and his advisers are planning how to strike against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad for his Aug. 21 nerve gas attack against his own people.

The U.S. must respond. But it must act in concert with other nations, reflecting the massive violation of international norms this horror represents. And it must temper Americans' expectations for the result.

If we've learned nothing else in more than a decade of war in the Middle East, it's that the U.S. cannot impose democracy and that in some conflicts, there may be no good outcome. The aim here is to show that the world will not tolerate a government committing atrocities against its people.

n this Aug. 21, 2013, file citizen journalism image, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian girl receives
n this Aug. 21, 2013, file citizen journalism image, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, a Syrian girl receives treatment at a makeshift hospital in Arbeen town, Damascus, Syria following what is being alleged as a chemical attack . (AP Photo/Local Committee of Arbeen, File)

The New York Times on Tuesday published a reconstruction of the attack that killed at a minimum hundreds of people, including many children: "Thousands of sick and dying Syrians had flooded the hospitals in the Damascus suburbs before dawn, hours after the first rockets landed, their bodies convulsing and mouths foaming. Their vision was blurry and many could not breathe."

The aftermath was described in excruciating detail, with medical workers trying to figure out how to store piles of corpses in the heat and Syrians desperately searching for loved ones.


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More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died in the two-year-old civil war, and millions more have been injured or made refugees. Through it all, including reports of smaller chemical weapons attacks, Obama refused to be drawn in: The right outcome for U.S. interests, or even Syrians' in the long run, has been unclear. Obama wisely has narrowed the scope of U.S. entanglement in the Middle East, understanding our limited ability to change the political direction of the region.

But Assad's massacre of civilians is different. As Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday, "This is about the large-scale indiscriminate use of weapons that the civilized world long ago decided must never be used at all, a conviction shared even by countries that agree on little else."

Obama reportedly is considering launching attacks from the sea on military units directly connected to the massacre. That kind of limited but forceful response could make Assad think twice before repeating his crime against humanity.

But the U.S. simply cannot go it alone. Russia and China have veto power in the United Nations, so it is unlikely to act. But the Arab League on Tuesday provided crucial Middle Eastern backing for a Western response, announcing that it blamed Assad for the gas attack. It joins more predictable supporters, Britain and France.

We urge the administration to cultivate as much support as possible, especially from Arab nations, to form a coalition of the willing. Only then could the U.S. effectively lead a response.