Steve Chapman

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.

Steve Chapman

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

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