"The worst mistake of my presidency," said Ronald Reagan of his decision to put Marines into the middle of Lebanon's civil war, where 241 died in a suicide bombing of their barracks.
And if Barack Obama plunges into Syria's civil war, it could consume his presidency, even as Iraq consumed the presidency of George W. Bush.
Why would Obama even consider this?
Because he blundered badly. Foolishly, he put his credibility on the line by warning that any Syrian use of chemical weapons would cross a "red line" and be a "game changer" with "enormous consequences."
Not only was this ultimatum unwise, Obama had no authority to issue it. If Syria does not threaten or attack us, Obama would need congressional authorization before he could constitutionally engage in acts of war against Syria. When did he ever receive such authorization?
Moreover, there is no proof Syrian President Bashar Assad ever ordered the use of chemical weapons.
U.S. intelligence agencies maintain that small amounts of the deadly toxin sarin gas were likely used. But if it did happen, we do not know who ordered it.
Syrians officials deny that they ever used chemicals. And before we dismiss Damascus' denials, recall that an innocent man in Tupelo, Miss., was lately charged with mailing deadly ricin to Sen. Roger Wicker and President Obama. This weekend, we learned he may have been framed.
It is well within the capacity of Assad's enemies to use or fake the use of poison gas to suck us into fighting their war.
Even if elements of Assad's army did use sarin, we ought not plunge in. And, fortunately, that seems to be Obama's thinking.
Why stay out? Because it is not our war. There is no vital U.S. interest in who rules Syria. Hafez Assad and Bashar have ruled Syria for 40 years. How has that ever threatened us?
Moreover, U.S. intervention would signal to Assad that the end is near, making his use of every weapon in his arsenal, including chemical weapons, more — not less — likely.
U.S. intervention would also make us de facto allies of Assad's principal enemies, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nusra Front, Syria's al-Qaida. As The New York Times reported Sunday, "Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of."
Do we really wish to expend American blood and treasure to bring about a victory of Islamists and jihadists in Syria?
If Assad's chemical weapons threaten any nation, it is Israel. But Israel knows where they are stored and has an air force superior to our own in the Med. Israeli troops on the Golan are as close to Damascus as Dulles Airport is to Washington, D.C. Yet Israel has not attacked Syria's chemical weapons.
Why not? Israel is well aware that Syria's air defense system is, as The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, "one of the most advanced and concentrated barriers on the planet."
And if Israel does not feel sufficiently threatened by Syria's chemical weapons to go after them, why should we, 4,000 miles away?
Then there is Turkey, with three times Syria's population, NATO's second-largest army and a 600-mile border. Why is ridding the Middle East of Assad our assignment and not Ankara's?
Surely the heirs of the Ottomans have a larger stake here.
And if we get into this war, how do we get out?
For the war is metastasizing. Hezbollah is sending in fighters to help the Alawite Shia. Other Lebanese are assisting the Sunni rebels. The war could spread into Iraq, where the latest clashes between Sunni and Shia are pulling the country apart. Young Muslims are coming in from Europe.
Iran and Russia are aiding Damascus. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are aiding the Islamists. The United States, Jordan and Turkey are aiding the secularists. Syria could come apart, and a sectarian and ethnic war of all against all erupt across the region.
Do we really want the U.S. military in the middle of this?
Because his "red line" appears to have been crossed, Obama is being told he must attack Syria to maintain his credibility with Iran and North Korea.
Nonsense. To attack Syria would compound Obama's folly in drawing the red line. Better to have egg on Obama's face than for America to be dragged into another unnecessary war.
Obama would not be alone in having his bluff called. George Bush proclaimed that no "axis of evil" nation would be allowed to acquire the "world's worst weapons." North Korea now has those weapons.
Congressional war hawks, led by Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are cawing for air strikes and no-fly zones, which would mean dead and captured Americans and many more dead Syrians.
Time for Congress to either authorize Obama to lead us into a new Middle East war, or direct him, in the absence of an attack upon us, to keep America out of what is Syria's civil war.
Before we slide into another war, let the country be consulted first.
Patrick J. Buchanan is the author of "Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?" To find out more about Patrick Buchanan and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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