Steve Chapman
The United States boasts the most powerful military on Earth. We have 1.4 million active-duty personnel, thousands of tanks, ships and planes, and 5,000 nuclear warheads. We spend more on defense than the next 13 countries combined. Yet we are told we have to bomb Syria to preserve our credibility in world affairs.

Really? You'd think it would be every other country that would need to confirm its seriousness. Since 1991, notes University of Chicago security scholar John Mearsheimer, the U.S. has been at war in two out of every three years. If we haven't secured our reputation by now, it's hard to imagine we ever could.

On the surface, American credibility resembles a mammoth fortress, impervious to anything an enemy could inflict. But to crusading internationalists, both liberal and conservative, it's a house of cards: The tiniest wrong move, and it collapses.

In a sense, though, they're right. The U.S. government doesn't have to impress the rest of the world with its willingness to defend against actual attacks or direct threats. But it does have to continually persuade everyone that we will lavish blood and treasure for purposes that are irrelevant to our security.

Syria illustrates the problem. Most governments don't fight unless they are attacked or have dreams of conquest and expansion. War is often expensive and debilitating even for the winners, and it's usually catastrophic for losers. Most leaders do their best to avoid it.

So even though the Syrian government is a vicious, repressive dictatorship with a serious grudge against Israel, it has mostly steered clear of military conflict. Not since 1982 has it dared to challenge Israel on the battlefield. When Israeli warplanes vaporized a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, Bashar al-Assad did nothing. The risks of responding were too dire.

But the U.S. never faces such sobering considerations. We are more secure than any country in the history of the world. What almost all of our recent military interventions have in common is that they involved countries that had not attacked us: Libya, Iraq, Serbia, Haiti, Somalia, Panama, Grenada and North Vietnam.

With the notable exception of the Afghanistan invasion, we don't fight wars of necessity. We fight wars of choice.

That's why we have such an insatiable hunger for credibility. In our case, it connotes an undisputed commitment to go into harm's way even when -- (SET ITAL) especially (END ITA) when -- we have no compelling need to do so. But it's a sale we can never quite close.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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