Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

Breakfast of Autocrats

If scientists discover that there is sufficient mass in the universe to slow its expansion and eventually cause all matter to collapse into one infinitely hot point in a hundred billion years, it will be Bush’s fault.

That’s just one of the things we’ve learned in the run-up to the Syrian stand-down, or whatever happens between the time this column is submitted and the time it ends up in your hands. It’s possible that Putin will float something that defuses the situation — say, Syria pretends to hand over its chemical weapons and the U.S. mothballs a carrier group. You’d like to think the president would say no. You fear he’d put his hand over the receiver and ask an aide, “Hey, how many of those do we have?”

Anyway, it’s Bush’s fault because he made the public war-weary. Here are some other lessons recent events have taught us:

1. Republican omnipotence remains undiluted. Ed Schultz, an MSNBC host who yells about things — if that narrows it down — believes that the president is being pushed into this war by Republican warmongers. That is exactly what you expect from someone whose ideas about anything “international” should be taken seriously only if followed by the words “House of Pancakes.” But this is how some on the left deal with the cognitive dissonance of the Peace Prize Lightworker blowing up dusky people: The nation cannot resist the persuasive powers of Republican arguments. Why, if President McCain’s for it, that’s good enough for me! Saddle up!

2. “War” is not war if the secretary of state deems the effort infinitesimal. John Kerry said any strike wouldn’t be like Afghanistan or Iraq — you know, where you do something loud and violent, and keep doing it until you win. A Syrian adventure would be “incredibly small,” which suggests we’re sending pixies to bombard them with quarks.

The Obama administration’s new “incredibly small” doctrine of not-war  provided the Pentagon with something of a puzzler, since a previous characterization of the not-war was something “muscular enough not to be mocked,” even if it went to the gym wearing mom jeans.  Blow up ten bases: mockable. Blow up 15: too much. Blow up twelve and degrade three: General Goldilocks, that’s perfect.

Possible non-mockable not-war options: Five hundred Tomahawk missiles that deploy confetti when striking their targets; saturation bombing with Not Exactly Really Fearsome (NERF) foam munitions developed by the Army for practice missions; Delta Force soldiers whose guns deploy a flag that says “Bang!” when they pull the trigger; and so on.

Well, here’s the total list of muscular non-mockable military actions:

A nuclear bomb

Another nuclear bomb

#page#Anything else is mockable, since it allows Assad to act like the French soldiers in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and shout “Your mother smells of elderberries” and “You pitch like a girl” from the comforts of his bunker.

3. There’s another calculation in the non-mockable manly-man not-war calibrated red-line reinforcement package: the cereal-cutlery metaphor. No doubt you’ve heard this:

“A second senior official offered this metaphor to describe such a strike: ‘If Assad is eating Cheerios, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Will that degrade his ability to eat Cheerios? Yes. Will it deter him? Maybe. But he’ll still be able to eat Cheerios.’”

This suggests that military planners have become adept at describing complex operations in terms a seven-year-old would understand: “Mr. President, this option has a risk of civilian owies, but there’s a 50 percent chance we will, in fact, defeat the big meanie.” Anyway, we’re going to take away his spoon and give him a fork. Perhaps if it’s unbelievably small and forcibly shoved into his hand by someone muscular, that’ll work. As the general noted, it’s still possible to eat Cheerios with a fork. You want Assad to eat his Cheerios with a knife, which is much more difficult, or, better yet, to slurp a liquefied mush of Cheerios through a straw, since the attack left him unable to consume solids. If he’s eating Lucky Charms, however, he can use a fork to stab all the crunchy marshmallows, which are really the best part. 

It’s a reminder of how our military has changed. Patton: “I’m going to march to Berlin and put the barrel of my pearl-handled revolver in the mouth of that paperhanging SOB.” Modern generals: “What we’re looking for is a response that leaves him with a somewhat less flaky croissant than he’s used to, and cold enough so it leaves crumbs all over when you bite it. We’re also looking to degrade his jam stocks.”

4. TV newsreaders love to use “military” terms when war is imminent; makes them feel like they’re broadcasting from the Blitz, wearing a trench coat. The use of the phrase “boots on the ground” by TV persons is particularly annoying, and shall henceforth be used only if one is referring to Private John Boots or to Boots, the Company Mascot Dog. Slinging the lingo makes you a military expert no more than saying “heels on the catwalk” makes you a fashion model.

5. The Left will be okay with this. Actor Ed Asner said that many are hesitant to be critical because “they don’t want to feel anti-black.” To which one can only quote MLK: I dream of a day when people will be judged not by the color of their skin but by their ludicrous inability to craft a clear doctrine, project strength, stand up to devious Rooskies, and behave as though the burdens of office aren’t interfering with tee time.

Prescient man, Dr. King.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

James Lileks — James Lileks writes the Athwart column for National Review magazine and is a frequent contributor to the National Review website. He is a prominent voice on Ricochet podcasts.

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