On Poking Animals and Other Stupid Things

by Victor Davis Hanson // NRO’s The Corner

There are lots of reasons why many of us who would like to punish the Assad-family regime for its long history of anti-American and savage and genocidal conduct fear the present course is unwise, not in America’s interest, and dangerous — at least as it has so far been articulated.

One of the most unwise things to do in war is to preempt with the intention of merely wounding or humiliating an adversary without any intention of following through with further responses, or of ensuring that the attacked has little ability to retaliate, or of being prepared for a long tit-for-tat sequence in which the preemptor (i.e., us) has the upper hand.

What was Georgia thinking in 2008 when it started a war in South Ossetia with Russia? Did bin Laden really think that we would not respond after his 9/11 gambit, or that he had a viable follow-up plan for taking down ten or so additional high-rises?

Japan apparently thought a one-time strike at the Seventh Fleet at Pearl Harbor would really show us who ran the Pacific. Even Reagan’s 1986 strike on Qaddafi was followed eventually by Qaddafi’s Lockerbie bombings that did not earn further serial reprisals. I don’t think the shelling in Lebanon after the Marines Barracks catastrophe restored American deterrence in the region, given that it was not sustained, nor even aimed at a particular punitive result.

Israel, which is replete with astute and brilliant strategists and military minds, was not quite prepared for the aftershocks of its several Lebanon incursions; but even in such risky operations it at least guaranteed that it would inflict a level of damage on its enemies that made their further provocations unwise and reminded radical Islamists and Syrians that in any extended back-and-forth Israel’s enemies would pay a far higher human and material price. Libya was ill-advised and proved a fiasco and we abdicated responsibility for the present mess after turning Tripoli into Mogadishu, but at least we took out Qaddafi, our understood aim.

Are we prepared for any of these scenarios in Syria, when the talk is not about steps two, three, and four, but mostly about our initial one-quarter or one-third step, as if the beginning will be the end because we say it is?

The point is not that a great power should not retaliate against grievances, only that when it preempts — and boldly starts an aggression for whatever cause, whether foolish or wise — it should be prepared to do so in such force that the attacked cannot retaliate, or at least realizes its planned retaliation would only ensure it more misery. Otherwise, poking an animal in the eye — no matter its apparent small size or lack of ferocity — will ensure some sort of response of who knows what caliber.

Nothing we’ve done in Afghanistan since 2009, in Iraq since 2009, in Libya since 2009, or in regard to Egypt since 2009, suggests that the United States is relentless, determined, dangerously unpredictable, and consistent in the pursuance of its regional and national interests.

Nothing the president has said or done in the present crisis suggests Churchillian resolve — whether the empty orders for Assad to abdicate, the pink red lines, the eleventh-hour bluster, the flip-flop on consulting Congress, the alienation of European allies, or the fobbing of responsibility for his  empty threats onto the U.N. and the “world.” When on the eve of war, Obama blames Congress in 2012 campaign fashion, or David Axelrod sneers that Congress is the proverbial dog that caught the car, no one abroad sees unity of moral purpose.

Nothing the secretary of state has said or done — whether his past puerile flirtation with the murderous Assad regime, or his inconsistent positions on Iraq, or his recently undercut proclamations about imminent attacks — has impressed our enemies that he is not the sort to cross. Putin now openly calls him a liar and, worse, “pathetic” — with no doubt more to come.

And even our poor beleaguered chairman of the Joint Chiefs seems agonized and almost embarrassed, as he tells us, or is quoted by the president to the effect, that time is and is not of the essence, the Syrian opposition is and is not capable of working with the West, and the military is and is not funded sufficiently to carry out such missions.

The prior secretary of state, who assured us that bombing Qaddafi was moral and wise given that he was far more dangerous to us and the world than the “reformer” Assad, is understandably mum.

The national-security adviser is understandably mum, given Benghazi and her past forfeiture of public credibility.

The architect of these sorts of humane interventions, U.N. ambassador Samantha Power, is understandably mum given  the results of “lead from behind” in her signature Libyan intervention, and the way we misled the U.N. about no-fly zones becoming ground-support bombing, and so nixed a repeat performance this time around over Syria.

What are we left with in Syria? A president who serially thunders “if Congress won’t act, I will” on matters of the environment, immigration, and the budget, but now plays a bad Hamlet in war—sorta, sorta not going to Congress, kinda, kinda not ready to follow its vote, and a military and a nation not eager to rally behind this sort of Stanley Baldwin commander-in-chief.

Our best hope? That Syria and its thuggish partners are as confused as we are, and believe all this is deliberate, a brilliant ruse that masks a terrible reckoning of the sort they would do anything to avoid.

If the president goes through with this ill-thought-out and confused attack, let us all unite, hope for the best — and prepare for anything.

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