We call our political rivals “stupid” too often. There are many who vex me who are not stupid. Barack Obama is not a stupid man. Paul Krugman is not a stupid man.
John Kerry is dumb as a cinderblock. And I mean a not-very-bright cinderblock, like a 32nd-percentile cinderblock at best.
Speaking about the goat rodeo in Syria earlier today, the man who academically underperformed George W. Bush at Yale insisted that no “military victory is possible” in Syria and that those who believe a military victory is possible are “dead wrong.” Then, because he is a highly educated cinderblock, he added: “This could be like Carthage with the Romans, if you call that a victory.”
Well, as a matter of curious fact, I do call that a victory. You know who else called that a victory? The Romans.
The Carthaginians would agree, if there were any around to ask.
Which there aren’t.
The quick and dirty history: There had been two Punic Wars (the Carthaginians in Latin were “punici”), the second of them won by Scipio, later called Scipio Africanus in honor of his victory in Carthage. (Because of his high-minded public service and basic decency, he was driven into exile by his fellow countrymen.) But even after the Roman triumph in the Second Punic War and the relatively liberal terms of the peace treaty, the Carthaginians continued to cause trouble. The Carthaginians, having paid their war debt to the Romans, considered their treaty with Rome fulfilled and thereby void, whereas Rome considered Carthage permanently subordinate. Neither side really understood the other’s practices when it came to international relations. Multiculturalism isn’t a new problem.
So the Romans went back to Carthage and absolutely wrecked the place. They Romans had a rougher time of it getting there than they’d expected, and they arrived in Carthage in ill temper. They were also resolved that there would not be a fourth Punic war. Having decisively beaten the army on the field, they laid siege to Carthage, starving much of the population. At the end of the siege, there were about 50,000 surviving Carthaginians. The Romans massacred a fair number of them while taking the city and sold the remainder into slavery. They spent the next 17 days systematically burning and demolishing Carthage, though the legend that they plowed salt into the fields in order to render the land barren apparently is a 19th century invention; securing a steady supply of grain was a Roman obsession, and North Africa was an important breadbasket.
Going on 22 centuries later, nobody has heard a peep from Carthage.
We don’t particularly need grain from Syria, or anything else from Syria, though we are not going to make like the Romans and simply wipe Syria off the map. But the idea that a military victory is not possible there is absurd. If President Obama were to give the order, our troops would take Damascus before Gary Johnson figured out where it is.
The problem isn’t that we’ve decided that a military victory in Syria is impossible; it is that we’ve decided that it isn’t desirable.
Nobody really wants to be Team Assad, because he is a slimy, murdering, torturing dirtbag who richly deserves the Saddam Hussein treatment. Unfortunately, the other side is to a nontrivial extent dominated by or in alliance with the Islamic State, an outgrowth of what we used to call al-Qaeda. We don’t know what to do, because we’ve figured out a few things: that nation-building doesn’t work on nations that do not desire to be built, that we can kill the No. 2 man in this or that jihadist organization once a month (seriously, second-in-command of one of these gangs is the worst job in terrorism) without ever coming close to exhausting the supply of rage-addled desert savages, that none of this is going to stop Ahmad the Chicken Man from setting off bombs in Chelsea, and that Americans’ appetite for investing blood and treasure in these enterprises is pretty weak.
Of course a military victory in Syria is possible. It just wouldn’t solve our problem.