The advocates of war against Syria have taken Theodore Roosevelt's advice and turned it upside down. They believe that in confronting Bashar al-Assad, the United States should speak loudly and carry a tiny stick.
Some liberals like nothing better than the chance to thunder righteously against evil incarnate, and Syria brings out the moralist in them. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Tuesday, "Will we, in the name of all that is human and decent, authorize the use of American military power against the inexcusable, indiscriminate and immoral use of chemical weapons?"
John Kerry agreed. "This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter," he informed the committee. "We need to send to Syria and to the world, to dictators and to terrorists, to allies and to civilians alike, the unmistakable message that when the United States of America and the world say never again, we don't mean sometimes; we don't mean somewhere; never means never."
Faced with widespread slaughter and vicious atrocities, you may conclude we must be willing to do whatever it takes to stop the perpetrators. To allow them to continue would make us, in Kerry's word, Assad's "enablers."
But if you think any of these advocates genuinely intend to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, you would be wrong. Kerry promised there would be no American "boots on the ground." Menendez emphasized that President Barack Obama wanted to use only "limited force." The strike would amount to a firm rap on the knuckles.
There is a vast gulf between the atrocities they cite and the steps they are willing to take in response. On one side of the scale is Assad's mass killing and his use of forbidden instruments of war. On the other is a brief flurry of cruise missiles, and possibly some aerial bombing, "to degrade and deter Bashar Assad's capacity to use chemical weapons," as Kerry put it.
When Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor, he promised that "the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory." When Winston Churchill rallied the British people to resist Hitler, he vowed "victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be. For without victory, there is no survival."
They didn't promise to degrade the enemy's military capacity. They didn't say we would drop a few bombs to dramatize our disapproval. They said they would do whatever it took to win.
The administration and its allies, by contrast, offer measures that are not likely—and apparently not even meant—to have much effect on Assad, his chemical weapons or the outcome of the war. Obama described the endeavor as "a shot across the bow." Kerry expressed hope that the strikes would "have downstream impact on his military capacity."
"The White House wants to strengthen the opposition but doesn't want it to prevail, according to people who attended closed-door briefings by top administration officials over the past week," The Wall Street Journal reported Monday. "Pentagon planners were instructed not to offer strike options that could help drive Mr. Assad from power." Obama thinks an attack will deter Assad from using chemical weapons—even though Obama's threat to attack failed to deter him.
The administration is striving not to evict a tyrant it has likened to Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. It wants to stop him from killing innocents with sarin gas, without diminishing his capacity to kill them in conventional ways.
The pertinent question is not whether we should let Assad get away with using these vicious weapons. We intend to let him get away with it—in the sense of surviving and even prevailing. The question is whether what Obama has in mind will do any good beyond salving some American consciences.
If it has any effect, it will probably be negative. A 2012 study in the Journal of Peace Research found that when outside powers provide support to rebels in civil wars, the government typically responds by killing civilians at a more rapid pace.
It's clear the administration is not prepared to take any action that will make a significant difference. Supporters of intervention make it sound as though they will save the world from a brutal dictator and his gruesome arsenal. But they don't really mean it.