Damaged by dithering over Syria

The United States already has lost credibility

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We must intervene in the civil war in Syria because "if a thug and a murderer like Bashar al-Assad can gas thousands of his own people with impunity," it would set a bad example for others, Secretary of State John Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.

Secretary Kerry's moral outrage would have been more moving if Sen. Kerry -- who met with the Syrian dictator six times and urged "engagement" with his regime -- hadn't said so many kind things about Mr. Assad in the recent past.

And Secretary Kerry's assertion that the use of chemical weapons justifies U.S. military intervention would be more persuasive if Sen. Kerry hadn't taken the opposite stance. Many more were killed when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurdish village of Halabja than in the sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb Aug. 21, but Sen. Kerry didn't think that justified U.S. intervention in Iraq.

President Barack Obama was preparing to launch strikes without obtaining approval from Congress, but changed his mind after the British Parliament voted against Britain's participation.

His "jarring change of direction now runs the risk of thoroughly undermining whatever remains of allied confidence in his leadership," wrote Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council, the State Department's point man on Syria during Mr. Obama's first term.

Mr. Kerry's change of direction at Tuesday's hearing doesn't inspire confidence either. A resolution authorizing military action should not forbid the use of ground troops, he said, but flip-flopped after receiving criticism.

He was right the first time. No war has ever gone the way the side that fired the first shot assumed it would. For recent examples, see Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq.

This is because, as Marine General James Mattis has said: "the enemy has a vote." How that vote is cast determines how a war is fought, how bloody it gets, how long it lasts, how it ends.

The administration's "mystifying lack of preparedness" for foreseeable developments in Syria results from a focus on domestic politics at the expense of grand strategy, Mr. Hof wrote.

"The spectacle of a president setting supposedly serious red lines only to pull back at the last moment, the twisting of language by the administration's diplomatic and military leaders to distinguish before Congress the difference between 'war' and 'military strikes,' and the complete absence of a strategy or articulation of national-security interests all paint a picture of a great power adrift," said Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute.

Mr. Obama "is only seeking buy-in from Capitol Hill because of public pressure," said liberal Washington Post columnist Colbert King. He seeks an "accomplice" to share blame if things go wrong, said conservative columnist George Will.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he supports military strikes. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10-7 Wednesday to authorize them.

The many "accomplices" in Congress indicate how detached our rulers have become from the people (who, polls indicate, overwhelmingly oppose intervention), and how little they know of what can -- and cannot -- be accomplished with military force.

Most Democrats appear to support Mr. Obama chiefly out of party loyalty. Many Republicans say we must strike because the president drew a "red line" on the use of chemical weapons. If we don't follow through on his threat, the world will think America is weak.

But that cat's already out of the bag. World leaders have noticed Mr. Obama has ideological objections to the exercise of American power, and a near pathological reluctance to make decisions. The strike he is planning -- described by one official as "just muscular enough not to be mocked" -- will change few minds, because acting ineffectually fuels the perception of weakness even more than failing to act.

Our leaders offer only frivolous reasons for a military strike on Syria -- to restore prestige, to express moral outrage, to send Mr. Assad a message -- and cannot explain how the strike they plan will accomplish their goals. They assume they can stop a war they start whenever they like, on their terms, and control the level of violence throughout.

This is a consequence of having "leaders" with no military experience, who send other people's kids into harm's way. The best argument for a terrible idea -- reinstatement of the draft -- is that it may cause some among them to treat war with the seriousness it deserves.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (jkelly@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1476).


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