Like a French waiter plying Mr. Creosote with a "wafer thin" mint, Secretary of State John Kerry promises us that any attack on Syria would be "unbelievably small." As with Mr. Creosote, we know that this minuscule treat will involve a horrible detonation that will quickly be over, leaving a nasty cleanup in its wake. But President Assad of Syria knows this, too, and is probably quite capable of scraping the resulting mess off the furnishings and carrying on as before. So what is it that Kerry, and his boss, President Obama, hope to accomplish with a well-telegraphed military action that the world has been assured won't be worth fussing about?
Secretary Kerry made his remarks in a joint press conference with Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, that must have had the U.K. politician wondering if he was participating in an open-mike foreign policy show:
Now, I believe that the aftermath of the Iraq experience and Afghanistan leave a lot of people saying, "We don't want to see our young people coming back in a body bag," and so forth. But that's not what we're talking about. And what we have to do is make clear to people that this is – we're not talking about war. We're not going to war. We will not have people at risk in that way. We will be able to hold Bashar Assad accountable without engaging in troops on the ground or any other prolonged kind of effort in a very limited, very targeted, very short-term effort that degrades his capacity to deliver chemical weapons without assuming responsibility for Syria's civil war. That is exactly what we're talking about doing – unbelievably small, limited kind of effort.
I think we all get that Kerry is reassuring the folks at home that no body bags will appear on the evening news. This will be nothing more than a painless (to Americans, anyway) television extravaganza, and there's no reason to get all hot and bothered or to dust off those anti-war signs.
President Obama, no doubt, had similar soothing intentions in mind when he promised at a G20 presser, "a limited, proportional strike like this—not Iraq, not putting boots on the ground; not some long, drawn-out affair." No need to worry folks—it won't hurt a bit.
Frankly, though. President Assad and his buddies probably find that pretty reassuring, too. It's especially reassuring to know that they "could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week" to avoid an attack. That's a good week to think about what to do with the chemical weapons stockpile—and to get the kids, the krugerrands and the good china into bunkers dug well underground.
Regular Syrians rarely have easy access to well-stocked bunkers, alas.
This has been the problem from the beginning with all of the promises that no troops would be committed, that only air strikes are contemplated, and that it will all be over in no time. Why would that especially trouble a brutal dictator fighting to avoid being overthrown by rebels and strung up by his toes? He can wait out an "unbelievably small" attack, while a few buildings, regular troops and, almost certainly, civilians won't be so lucky.
Maybe, a week from now, Assad will surrender some nerve gas shells and go back to slaughtering his countrymen the old fashioned way. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the number of dead in the civil war so far at over 110,000, so chemical weapons that have killed somewhere between 300 and and 1,500 people clearly aren't a necessity.
But any other outcome—say, trying to actually end the killing entirely—would require an effort rather more extensive than an "unbelievably small" attack. And there would be no guarantee of success, of course. Maybe just more bodies, some of them in American uniforms.
Polls already indicate that Americans aren't going to go along with another actual war. That's no shocker after over a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. An "unbelievably small" attack might be an easier sell, but it's doomed to be ineffective.
It's only wafer thin, and it'll all be over in a minute. And damned if any of us can tell what it's supposed to accomplish.