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Road to Damascus full of potholes

Published on -9/12/2013, 11:27 AM

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Some things you just have to do, in spite of great uncertainty. Launching missiles at Syria isn't one of them.

Many pundits talk about going to war as if all we have to do is make up our minds about what "ought" to happen -- who the bad guys are -- and the rest is just details. If we decide we must punish a tyrant, let the military worry about how to get it done.

We ought to worry more about details.

Everyone agrees there are huge "known unknowns" in Syria -- we barely know the composition of the rebel movement we're supposed to aid -- but we should be more concerned about "unknown unknowns," to borrow former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's phrase.

Remember the confidence with which he and other Bush administration officials described their plans to remake Iraq? Dick Cheney said, "We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators." The Wall Street Journal beat the drums for war for a year. I read that Iraq was full of repressed democratic activists just waiting for Saddam to be overthrown.

Pundits also argued that once the authoritarian ruler was gone, Iraq would blossom into a showcase of peace and democracy that would inspire transformation throughout the region. I wanted to believe it. Once they had a choice, why wouldn't they pursue our way of life? It's clearly better!

Instead, we've spent more than a decade fighting feuding factions that most Americans have never heard of -- and still can't name.

When pro-war pundits did admit to uncertainty about what would happen in Iraq, it was often to stoke fear about what would happen if we didn't intervene. Saddam might use chemical weapons! Saddam might get nukes! Well, maybe.

I'm glad Saddam is gone, and Iraqis are better off. But the masses yearning to breathe free turned out to include more troublemakers than we expected.

I don't trust John Kerry, but I'll accept his claim that Syria's leaders probably used chemical weapons to kill 1,400 people. Horrible.

But are we going to enforce a "red line" to tell dictators that if they murder their people, they better use conventional weapons?

Even if that's the goal, our options are limited. Maybe we'll:

* Lob a few cruise missiles, like Bill Clinton did in Sudan.

* Hit Assad's compound, killing hundreds of innocents, without killing Assad.

* Kill Assad himself and then ... what?

President Obama argues that limited intervention in Syria might accomplish good more quickly and cheaply than our efforts in Iraq did. He said he wants a two-day engagement instead of months of fighting.

But we thought that would happen in Iraq, too. We didn't foresee years of civil war. What do we fail to foresee now? More intervention from Russia? China? Iran? World war?

Even if the conflict remains localized and contained -- a dangerous assumption in the "fog of war" -- we can't assume that a new government will be more democratic or tolerant than Assad's regime.

We already know that the rebel forces include factions allied with al-Qaida. Some of those people execute Christians and want to replace Assad's repressive but multi-faith regime with Islamic totalitarianism. If they murder Christians while still fighting Assad, what will they do once in power?

Years ago, al-Qaida (and Osama bin Laden) gained power because America funded "rebels" fighting the Russians in Afghanistan.

Given what happened on Sept. 11, 2001, there are worse things than leaving murderous Russian-backed governments in place.

I hate Assad. I hate what's happened in Syria. I also hate what happened in Rwanda and Darfur and what still happens in Somalia, China, Russia, Zimbabwe and so on.

But there's just not much we can do about it without making new enemies and exacerbating America's coming bankruptcy. America cannot police the world and shouldn't try.

Defense should mean defense. Unless we are attacked, we shouldn't go to war.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network and the author of "No They Can't! Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed."

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