We should not bomb Syria without a vital national security interest and a precise foreign policy objective.

Right now, the Obama administration has not established either.

Under the United States’ legal and historical precedents, a president faces the highest burden for justifying military attacks that are essentially optional: actions not required for self-defense and which are not in response to an attack on the United States — or imminent threat of such attack.  Intervening in the Syrian civil war fits that difficult category.

Even supporters of Syrian intervention do not claim it is required for U.S. security, since the Assad regime has not directly attacked the United States or its interests. In fact, the mission’s stated goal doesn’t attempt to qualify as traditional self-defense. The aim is to “prevent or deter” Syria from killing its citizens with chemical weapons, according to the Obama administration’s original draft resolution.

The White House has every right to make the humanitarian case for intervention, a rationale pressed earnestly in Bosnia and dishonestly in Iraq. This altruistic argument, however, has rarely provided the sole policy or legal justification for a proactive attack on a sovereign nation. That’s true both in American history and under international law. Given that context, the administration’s piecemeal case for limited intervention is particularly hard to accept.

Administration officials are proposing a military operation that claims to fall short of war while sidestepping any notion of conventional victory over the Assad regime.