“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine penned those immortal words in December of 1776, but they seem equally applicable to the present chapter in the history of our nation. This time, though, the “soldier” whose mettle is being tested is the commander-in-chief, and the army ranged behind him is no ragtag agglomeration of patriots but the most powerful and sophisticated military force on planet Earth.
The dilemma of the commander, Barack Obama, is that he ran his mouth off last year, delivering an ultimatum to a tyrant, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Last week Assad called Obama’s bluff, murdering 1,429 of his own civilians using nerve gas, and now the American president in a bind. If he fails to respond to Assad’s crimes against humanity with a show of military might, he will appear weaker than he already does on the world stage. But if the U.S. becomes embroiled in another conflict in the Middle East, he could face — to borrow his own phrase — “enormous consequences” here at home, where there is no appetite for more warfare.
Thomas Paine wasn’t aware of the importance of nuance as a tool of leadership, but Obama is a self-professed master of nuance. He is thus striving for what one U.S. official briefed on the options on Syria termed “a level of intensity ‘just muscular enough not to get mocked’ but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.”
Just muscular enough not to get mocked! The words would make a perfect inscription on the base of Obama’s eventual sculpture in the National Statuary Hall.
The problem is that Obama is already the target of mockery. On her Facebook page, Sarah Palin wrote yesterday, “So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria? And I’m the idiot?” The former Alaska governor explains:
President Obama wants America involved in Syria’s civil war pitting the antagonistic Assad regime against equally antagonistic Al Qaeda affiliated rebels. But he’s not quite sure which side is doing what, what the ultimate end game is, or even whose side we should be on.
In a column at The Wall Street Journal titled “Show of Farce,” James Taranto gathered up some of the funnier digs at what the Onion terms Obama’s “Syria Option” (singular).
Andy Borowitz, resident satirist at The New Yorker, summed it up with the headline ‘Obama Promises Syria Strike Will Have No Objective.’ Here’s his pretend Obama quote: ‘Let me be clear. Our goal will not be to effect régime change, or alter the balance of power in Syria, or bring the civil war there to an end. We will simply do something random there for one or two days and then leave.’
“Max Fisher of the Washington Post … agrees with Borowitz,” Taranto continues, “insofar as the administration does not mean to oust Assad or to end or even influence the Syrian civil war. But he maintains there is an objective, albeit a ‘much more modest’ one: ‘to punish Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad for his suspected use of chemical weapons so that he, and future military leaders, won’t do it again.’” But as Taranto writes:
Assad has in effect been found guilty of 1,429 counts of murder, with the aggravating circumstance that the method he used is widely considered to be particularly atrocious. What is the appropriate punishment?
In most U.S. jurisdictions, including the federal courts, the death penalty would be a possibility. Another dictator who waged chemical warfare on his country’s citizens, Saddam Hussein, was in fact executed in 2006 (although for convictions in a different massacre that did not involve chemical weapons). Even in Europe a crime of this magnitude would surely merit at least a few decades in prison.
Indications are that the Obama administration’s response will be to drop a few bombs, break some stuff, and maybe kill a few bystanders. That comes nowhere near being a just punishment for the crimes alleged.
Needless to say, not everyone is laughing. The administration acolytes at The New York Times are eager for readers to appreciate why Obama’s war on Syria is different from George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. The Times’s Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, asked managing editor Dean Baquet. Here is the answer:
Syria is not another Iraq, he said — one of the major differences, he said, is that the Obama administration has no enthusiasm for this conflict in the way that President George W. Bush’s administration did a decade ago. [Emphasis added]
Replace “enthusiasm for this conflict” with backbone, and you not only have a more accurate quote but another candidate for a Statuary Hall inscription.