The Corner

Syria in a Nutshell

We are contemplating going to war in Syria to help the opposition a lot and to hurt Assad some, or to help the opposition some and hurt Assad a lot, or to hurt Assad some and help the opposition some, or to force Assad to stop or to leave, or to stop but stay, or to stop and leave; or to restore the word of the president, or the word of the United States, or the word of the international community by bombing, or by threatening to bomb but not bombing, or by neither threatening to bomb nor bombing; or to warn the Russians to stay out, or to welcome the Russians to come in, or to warn the Russians to stay out and welcome the Russians to come in. Message? We are planning to do all kinds of things by not doing anything.

We had planned a “shot across the bow” against Syria, which was to be “unbelievably small” but could by no stretch of the imagination be a “pinprick” — given that the U.S. military “doesn’t do pinpricks.” But a pinprick at least hits its target, while a shot across the bow does not. Message? The administration apparently wants to talk about taking military action rather than take military action, and so splits the difference and talks about taking a little bit of military action.

First Hillary Clinton set a red line, then Barack Obama set two; but neither really did, because the world already had set red lines. Message? Everyone vies to set red lines; no one competes to enforce them. 

The United States does not bomb a sovereign nation that is responsible for a war that kills 99,000 people. The United States instead does intend to bomb a state that has used WMD to kill 1,000. But then again, the United States really did not bomb a state that has killed 1,000 with WMD. The United States would bomb any sovereign nation that has killed 1,000 with WMD, to destroy its WMD, or to warn others not to kill 1,000 with WMD, or to punish it for already killing 1,000 with WMD. Message? If you’re a monster, either kill 99,000 without WMD, or a number smaller than 1,000 with WMD — or maybe 1,000 with WMD after all.

According to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Mr. Assad, before he was to step down and leave, was not long earlier a “reformer” and a “moderate,” at the very time when Mr. Qaddafi in contrast was targeted as someone who needed to be captured or killed. But before we targeted Qaddafi, he had in fact also been proclaimed to be a reformer and a moderate. The message? Middle Eastern authoritarians should worry when the U.S. labels them reformers and moderates, but relax when we order them to step down and leave. 

War with Syria was once imminent, given that time was of the essence, and then was not imminent, given that time was not of the essence. Message? Apparently when we think about bombing, we have to bomb right away before the targets scatter; but when we think about not bombing, then we should not bomb right away because the target always stays put while we think about bombing — or not.

If we are going to bomb Syria, the president does not have to go to Congress. But he also is supposed to go to Congress. But he also can bomb Syria after he goes to Congress if he doesn’t like the way Congress votes. But he can also postpone going to Congress if he is afraid that he won’t like the way Congress votes. Or he can go ahead and not postpone going to Congress, and just bomb Syria because he does not want to go to Congress if he thinks he won’t like the way Congress votes. Message? Going and not going to Congress are essential.

Assad is a monster who kills thousands. Assad is a monster who gasses children and seems also to be the only one protecting Christians, Alawites, and Kurds from non-monsters who do not gas children but do kill minorities. Assad is opposed by monsters who are cannibals and execute prisoners as well as non-monsters who only kill but do not eat Assad’s monsters. Message? Sometimes monsters are non-monsters, and sometimes non-monsters are monsters.

Obama was elected to end wars, not to start them. So he ended a war in Iraq that in truth had already been ended, and continued one in Afghanistan that was not ended, and then started a war in Libya but does not want to start one in Syria since we are tired of the wars that someone else started in Afghanistan and that ended in Iraq and that he started in Libya. Message? Obama says that he does not like to start wars.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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