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posted: 9/9/2013 9:24 AM

A little bit of war

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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.

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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?

I remember well watching the second plane fly into the second tower on 9/11 and saying to all gathered around the TV: "We're at war."

We know it when we see it. Doubtless, the Syrians do too.

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 include that our interference in a civil war will instruct other rogues to watch out and that Assad will receive the message that the use of chemical weapons won't be tolerated.

In a fresh round of cognitive dissonance, those who hesitate on the brink of a limited war of choice, especially Republicans, are dismissively characterized as "war-weary." Democratic strategist James Carville put a finer point on it: Iraq Syndrome, aka "Blame Bush." Thanks to the previous administration's handling of Iraq -- a not-so "cakewalk" of "shock and awe" -- Americans are hesitant to have another go in the Middle East.

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

As Congress convenes next week to consider whether to authorize Obama's use of force, here are a few questions to ponder. What if:

• The Syrian response is more chemical weapons or some other hostile action?

• A couple of our planes are taken down in the event the Pentagon deploys Air Force bombers?

• We kill a few women and children? Given the ample time we've allowed Assad to prepare for a strike, it is probable that the weapons delivery systems we aim to hit have been positioned close to civilians. Suddenly we are no better than Assad, just another killer of innocents.

Finally, the worst question follows all of the above: Then what? The worst-case scenario isn't necessarily inevitable, but the risk seems greater than any justification thus far offered.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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