Although it can seem as if we’re always fighting somewhere, the United States is not a terribly warlike country.
During the Civil War — our bloodiest conflict after World War II — we fought among ourselves. World War II started when the Japanese attacked us without warning, sinking four of our battleships, damaging four others and killing more than 2,000 Americans. And Nazi Germany, in a show of Axis solidarity, declared war on us, not vice versa.
We were clearly provoked by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But rather than clean up the remnants of al-Qaida in Afghanistan, we found ourselves in control of Iraq, for reasons that grow ever more unclear with time.
As Iraq became increasingly pointless — we didn’t even come out of that war with any oil — we announced that we were leaving for good at the end of 2011, giving both the Iraqi government and the insurgents plenty of time to plan.
We have announced that we and the other NATO forces will be almost entirely out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. It’s our way of telling the Taliban and the remnants of al-Qaida that they should head back to their caves because we’re going to get out of there anyway.
With Syria, we have taken the business of deadlines another step. We announce when we’re going to get out of the war before we’re even in it.
It is clear that Syrian strongman Bashar Assad did something not only evil but against international law — as if that’s ever stopped a dictator bent on mayhem — by launching rockets loaded with poison gas into civilian neighborhoods that may have been sheltering insurgents.
Afterward, photos showing rooms of unmarked corpses of children repulsed the United States, France and the Arab Persian Gulf countries that do not want to be left to face Assad unaided. Russia and China cited lack of specific proof, on the order of photos of Assad personally lighting the fuse of a rocket loaded with sarin gas.
Something has to be done. Because the usually reliable Brits have opted out, the task has fallen to the United States plus whatever help the French can provide.
President Barack Obama, departing from type, suddenly decided to ask Congress for permission for a punitive military strike against Syria. Congress is working on approval of “a limited and tailored” mission not to exceed 60 days. Obama could ask for an extra 30 if he felt the need, but our role effectively would be capped at three months.
The attacks, as any Syrian intelligence official with access to a decent newspaper knows, will come from cruise missiles and possibly manned aircraft, launched from a safe distance offshore and aimed at targets designed to minimize civilian casualties.
We’ll fight this constrained little military operation without “boots on the ground,” the current cliche for the U.S. soldiers and Marines trained to do this sort of thing.
Even if we don’t plan on using ground troops, why on earth would we tell the Syrian government in advance? Keep it guessing.
The old saying among the military was that you knew you had won when you were sitting with your feet up on the furniture of the other side’s officers club, drinking whiskey. To find out how this military venture turns out, we’ll have to wait for the press release.
Dale McFeatters writes for the Scripps Howard News Service.