To intervene militarily in a conflict between bitter enemies of the United States is madness. To intervene in a deliberately ineffective way is madness on steroids. That President Barack Obama, prodded by most in the political class, plans to do precisely this indicates how frivolous they are, how out of touch with reality they've become.
On one side in the bloody civil war in Syria is the regime of dictator Bashar Assad, Iran's foremost ally. On the other is a rebel coalition dominated by al Qaida.
No matter who wins, America loses. Our interests are served best by a bloody stalemate.
But when Mr. Obama declared at a news conference last year the use of chemical weapons would be a "red line" the regime dare not cross, the strategic calculus changed.
Until then, "Syria was not an issue that affected the U.S. national interest," said George Friedman of the Strategic Forecasting global intelligence service. "It escalated in importance at that point not because Syria is critical to the United States, but because the credibility of its stated limits are of vital importance."
Because the regime apparently did use nerve gas last week, the president must respond with military force, 66 former government officials and foreign policy "experts" said in a letter to Mr. Obama Tuesday.
"Left unanswered, the Assad regime's mounting attacks with chemical weapons will show the world that America's red lines are only empty threats," said the bipartisan group.
Lawmakers in both parties say Mr. Obama must act to restore prestige and because the use of chemical weapons is a moral outrage that demands a response.
So Mr. Obama is planning "limited" strikes made primarily by cruise missiles launched from warships.
The strikes would last for two or three days, and won't be directed at Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, or Mr. Assad himself.
It would be "a barrage designed to punish Assad for using chemical weapons -- but of insufficient magnitude or duration to force him from power," wrote Mark Thompson of Time Magazine. "That would let Obama say he has punished the Syrian strongman without committing the U.S. military to a long-term conflict."
The president thinks we can stop a war we start whenever we like, control the level of violence throughout.
There is no nonsense more dangerous than this.
The most important thing to know about war is that "the enemy has a vote," said legendary Marine General James Mattis. "No war is over until the enemy says it's over."
There will be "catastrophic consequences" if the U.S. attacks, warn Syria, Russia and Iran. That may be bluster.
But when Syria and Iran threaten to attack Israel in response, we'd better take them seriously, because they have missiles that can strike Israel, and tons of chemical munitions to arm them with.
Through a series of officially sanctioned leaks, the administration has told Mr. Assad where we'll strike, what we'll strike, how we'll strike, and that we won't go after him.
The White House is planning a response "just muscular enough not to get mocked," an official told the Los Angeles Times.
What's being planned, and the deliberate leaking of those plans, is military insanity.
What's most significant is the leaks make clear Mr. Obama plans to make war just to send a message - a message intended more for his domestic critics than for Mr. Assad.
Though morally repugnant, the administration's pre-emptive sabotage of its token attack may minimize the harm we'll suffer from a reckless action from which only harm can come.
We'll suffer harm no matter what. Those who've said America will seem weak if the president doesn't act soon will see how much weaker we seem after he acts ineffectually.
But since it's bad for America if either side wins, the optimal result of U.S. military intervention is no effect at all. Making it clear to Mr. Assad that that's precisely what the president intends reduces the danger he or his powerful allies will retaliate.
War, alas, is fraught with unintended consequences. "Bashar Assad's notorious incompetence means his response cannot be anticipated," said Middle East expert Daniel Pipes.
An attack on Syria could trigger a regional war, which may blossom into World War III. Which is why what Mr. Obama is contemplating could be the most reckless thing an American president has ever done.
Jack Klley writes for The Pittsburgh Press and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.
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