Familiar territory: Haven't we been here before?
-- First Corinthians
Korean War and Stalemate, for painful example, the military objective became not victory but an unending, inconclusive draw -- day after bloody day. And year.
. . .
After a dramatic end run -- the master stroke that was the Inchon Landing, Allied troops led by American forces headed for the Yalu and the liberation of all the Korean peninsula. But on the verge of victory, the military calculus was turned upside down by the massive intervention of well-prepared, well-supplied troops pouring into the battle from Red China -- in what seemed infinite numbers.
Having let himself be surprised, the great American commander -- the long triumphant and occasionally humiliated but always imperious Douglas MacArthur -- made repeated requests to Washington for permission to bomb the bridges over the Yalu, hoping to stop or at least slow the advancing horde. His pleas were ignored. Finally he got permission to blow the bridges. Too late. And even then he was told to be sure to bomb them only on the Korean side. This would no longer be a military theater but a theater of the absurd -- in slow, painful, freezing motion. The Longest War would become longer.
American casualties mounted ever higher, eroding what was left of the country's will to win. Not till a new commander-in-chief took over in Washington would America begin to give the enemy a different impression -- that this country was no longer prepared to be slowly bled but would strike with all the power at its command, including the nuclear variety. A truce followed.
The armistice in Korea was achieved within months of Dwight D. Eisenhower's inauguration as president and commander-in-chief of the country's armed forces. That armistice now has lasted half a century, however precariously at times. Leadership can be all in these dangerous matters.
. . .
Vietnam would provide an even starker and longer example of the toll that indecisive leadership can take year after terrible year.
Now, once again, an uncertain trumpet is sounded. A president and supposed commander-in-chief has invited Congress to set military policy. Just as it finally did when the war was in Vietnam, cutting off supplies and air support, leaving the forces of freedom defenseless.
How long before, once again, vague and always changing Rules of Engagement hamstring American power? How long before gradual escalation takes the place of any objective as clear as victory? And the aim of all this sacrifice becomes nothing more than a "decent interval," to use Henry Kissinger's indecent phrase, before we abandon any allies we have left in this conflict? (That'll teach 'em to rely on America's word.)
Question: Just what is this president's goal in ravaged Syria -- only a symbolic strike from a distance, a brief pause before still more millions in Syria are left to the tender mercies of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian sponsors? For he can count on the unstinting support of the usual terrorist groups and his faithful enablers in Moscow and Beijing.
What can the beleaguered and divided forces of freedom in Syria, their ranks already infiltrated by their own Islamist zealots, count on from the once united free world -- if anything?
There ought to be a better reason for going to war than a vague feeling that something ought to be done, or at least seem to be done, and hoping the legislative branch can figure out what that is and how to do it -- no matter what the Constitution says about the president's having the responsibility of waging war.
Call it war-by-committee. Mournful memories of Korea and Vietnam still linger like warnings, but this president seems to have confused them with guides.
Better to do nothing than pretend to do something -- and confirm the growing impression that America has given up leading the world and wants only to retreat from it. Even while making a symbolic gesture of concern for the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria and the millions made homeless both outside and within Assad's hellish realm.
The toll in Syria is mounting daily, the danger growing, the suffering continuing, and the war is spreading. That much is clear. This administration's policy isn't.
Now this president proposes to hand off responsibility for America's latest war to a committee of 535. That does not sound like an improvement. Other than spreading the responsibility for any debacle all around, what is the object of the war resolution he's just put before Congress? No one can be sure.
Once the dogs of war are unleashed and Havoc cried, there are no certainties, including how long Congress' support for the war will last. Back in 2003, even Our Lady of Benghazi, the once and future presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was all for going into Iraq -- till she was all for getting out.
No doubt all the sunshine soldiers and sunshine patriots in Congress will snap to this week and sign whatever resolution the White House puts in front of them. They'll be all for this war. For now. Much like John Kerry, currently secretary of state, rushed to support the war in Iraq back in 2003 -- before opposing it when he ran for president the next year. Lest we forget, that war had bipartisan backing, too -- till it proved a political liability.
Shades of Colin Powell, who as secretary of state assured Congress that Iraq's Saddam Hussein had all kinds of WMD. Now it is John Kerry who assures Congress that Syria's Bashar Assad has used poison gas against his own people. Maybe he has, maybe he hasn't. But this much should be clear: There are better reasons than so debatable a claim to go to war. There were better reasons two years ago, when Assad began slaughtering his own people and threatening the peace of the whole region, such as that peace is.
By now Syria's little despot has killed at least 100,000 of his countrymen, driven 2 million into exile, and displaced some 5 million more inside Syria -- and our president, it would seem, proposes to respond not by toppling his regime but by registering a diplomatic protest by cruise missile. If Congress approves.
It's hard to think of a single adjective that would better capture the spirit of such "leadership" than feckless. Yet not to support the president at this turn would be worse than supporting him, for it would confirm what America's enemies around the world hope, and our allies have all too much reason to fear: that America is no longer the great champion of freedom in a dangerous and uncertain world but a helpless, pitiable giant.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)