Friday, September 6, 2013


Back in the 1960's, President Lyndon Johnson was confronted with the perceived necessity to take military action in response to the Tonkin Gulf incident. At that time he was embroiled in his social agenda, The Great Society. He elected to take action, but he also decided not to enlist the support of the American population. He reasoned that if popular sentiment were stirred in favor of the military action, it might detract from his Great Society efforts. This was not the only military mistake made during the Vietnam Era, but you could say it was one of the first. A good friend of mine once told me that "It takes three [big mistakes] to make a disaster." In Vietnam our Presidents made many big mistakes, and one of the biggest was not enlisting the support of the American citizenry.

Kings and dictators can wage war without the approval of their subjects, but in a free country warfare cannot be successful without the full support of the population. This was demonstrated by the popular reaction to the Tet Offensive, a tactical victory but a strategic disaster.

When we wage war, we would do well to follow Colin Powell's three rules for military action: (1) Have a clearly defined, obtainable objective. (2) Employ overwhelming force. (3) Have an exit strategy.

Let's take these considerations and apply them to the current situation in Syria. Somebody may have gassed innocent civilians. It may be the government did it. It may be the rebels. Odds are it's the government but we can't really be sure at this point. We can be sure that neither the government nor the rebels are friends of the U.S. The American media is clamoring for some sort of military action because children were killed in the attack. The death of children is deplorable, but excessive emotion over the death of children can lead to abominably bad decisions. Although Machiavelli is not my favorite political philosopher, I do agree with his precept that political decision should not be guided by emotion but rather by logic. Is there some other reason than dead children for us becoming involved in the quagmire of a Middle Eastern war? How many dead Americans might result from our becoming involved? It may sound callous, but I think that keeping Americans alive is a more attainable objective than avenging deaths on the other side of the world.

Our President has decided that he can unilaterally, and without anyone's consent, wage war after the manner of a king or a dictator. He has, however, given Congress the opportunity to rubberstamp his decision. Congress may very well do so, but it appears that the American public disapproves. Our President is busily (and apparently unsuccessfully) courting foreign governments to buy into military action, but he has done nothing to enlist the support of the American people. All this is a huge red flag indicating that military action may very well be ill-advised.

Having decided that military action does not have the support of the American people, let us see how it stacks up against the Powell Doctrine. (1) A clearly defined, obtainable objective. We're going to punish the Syrian government. How? What happens after we bomb them? Is having the Syrian government say "We're sorry. We've been bad boys and won't do it again" our objective? (2) Overwhelming force. Is "no boots on the ground" overwhelming force? Isn't that how we started the Vietnam fiasco? Has any air force ever won a war without putting boots on the ground? One of the big mistakes we made in Vietnam was making repeated decisions to use underwhelming force, which merely incensed the enemy rather than breaking its will to fight. (3) An exit strategy. Okay, we've done limited bombing. Now what?

Nightmare scenario: The Syrian government relocates an orphanage to the site of one of our military targets. We kill far more children with our bombing that the Syrian government did with its gas. Now what?

In Syria right now, we have two forces, both hostile to America, warring with each other. Civilian noncombatants are getting killed. Civilian noncombatants get killed in every war. It is unfortunate, but unavoidable. From a Machiavellian perspective, when your enemies are fighting each other instead of attacking you, you should stand back and let them have at it.