September 11, 2013

PARKER: A little bit of war


---- — Waging a little bit of war is like being a little bit pregnant.

History and human experience tell us that neither is possible, yet we seem bent on believing it. Or, should I say, deceiving ourselves. President Obama’s call to strategically strike a few targets in Syria to teach President Bashar al-Assad a lesson — and John Kerry’s assertion that this would not be war — should give everyone pause. What would we call it if another country fired missiles our way?

Our ponderous slog toward non-war, meanwhile, is scaring all the wrong people. Not Assad, who by most accounts can survive a limited strike. Not Syria’s friends, who see us as flaccid and indecisive.

Us. What can we be thinking?

According to Obama, we’re thinking “shot across the bow,” which means we’ll so frighten Assad that he’ll stop fighting for his survival. Not likely. The implication that we’ll follow suit with something worse should he not accede to our wishes is rendered moot by our assurances that we won’t, in fact, do worse.

Murkier still is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee resolution stating that our policy is to “change the momentum on the battlefield.”

Even as we declare non-war in the most circumlocutory sort of way, Americans are asked to place their faith in illogical assumptions and unlikely outcomes.

These seem to me excellent reasons for hesitation. To be war-weary is to be sane. To be reticent in light of experience is to be wise. Sane and wise seem like good starting points for adult debate, especially when the stated goals of a strike against Syria are nebulous to potentially nightmarish.

Even as regrettable as our Iraq adventure was in retrospect, absent the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein wanted the world to believe he had, the clearly stated goal of a then-international coalition was to take down Saddam, who was considered a legitimate threat.

This time, we can’t even rustle up support from our most loyal ally, Britain, much less the international community, an inconvenience that puts the U.S. in possible conflict with international law, as Obama himself has mentioned. Speaking to CNN in late August, Obama remarked that without a U.N. mandate “there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it [missile strikes].”

Indeed, military lawyers tell me that using force without international sanction violates international law unless the action is in self-defense.

Much as we despise what Assad has done during two years of civil war, we clearly are not in imminent danger from Syria.

As always, we have to wonder: Who is the greater threat? Assad? Or those who seek to depose him, including the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda?

Administration officials insist that most of those in the opposition are moderates, but hasn’t such faith blinded us before?

Kathleen Parker is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. She can be reached at