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I used to think the quote “If you strike at a king, you must kill him” came from Machiavelli — it certainly sounds like the great Italian — but apparently it comes from the not quite as great American Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But no matter the provenance, the import is obvious: Go for the throat or leave your enemy to exact revenge at your peril — and on his own time.

Back in WWII, the United States took Emerson’s advice, going so far as to nuke Hiroshima and Nagasaki and lay waste to Dresden. But, hey, we won. And Japan and Germany turned into responsible modern democracies.

Lately, not so much. Since Vietnam, and maybe Korea, we are in the era of the “limited response” and the “surgical strike,” loathe to offend our enemies or, worse yet, have someone speak unkindly of us at a UNESCO meeting.

That was why I was especially pleased to read Bret Stephens’ column in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal“Target Assad.” Stephens does not mince words:

Should President Obama decide to order a military strike against Syria, his main order of business must be to kill Bashar Assad. Also, Bashar’s brother and principal henchman, Maher. Also, everyone else in the Assad family with a claim on political power. Also, all of the political symbols of the Assad family’s power, including all of their official or unofficial residences. The use of chemical weapons against one’s own citizens plumbs depths of barbarity matched in recent history only by Saddam Hussein. A civilized world cannot tolerate it. It must demonstrate that the penalty for it will be acutely personal and inescapably fatal.

Right on.

Unfortunately, however, leaks of Obama’s intentions indicate nothing like this direct, morally truthful, and more likely to be effective approach is planned. Instead, we hear only of calibrated pinpricks accompanied by a public pledge that the U.S. is not (Heaven forfend) interested in “regime change,” let alone in the assassination of men who are clearly the mass murderers of their own people (and who knows who else if they had a chance).

Stephens isn’t getting much support for his admittedly “bloody-minded” approach from the right either. Many complain that we will only be playing into the hands of al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, Assad’s adversaries and certainly not friends of ours.

Well, yes.

But at this particular moment the Muslim Brotherhood is on the run after a massive defeat in Egypt and al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda — depraved refugees from the year 800. We are going to be dealing with them for a long time, alas, at least until they stop trying to pull us all back into the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, a decision looms about Syria. Which of the two sides is worse? Is there a principal enemy?

In the case of Syria, it’s clear. The principal enemy is and was that Arab nation’s masters in Iran.

Iran is there watching our every move to see how we will respond to what has now definitively been shown to be a grave chemical weapons attack.

If we don’t deal with this, why should we be expected to lift a finger to prevent a nuclear Iran?

Now I know some think that a nuclear Iran is not such a bad thing, that nuclear armed mullahs (pace their religious fanaticism) would suddenly be realists and behave in a responsible manner with their weapons like good members of the Politburo. Those people may be right, but gambling on such a transformation, given the history of the Islamic Republic, is not a bet I would like to take. The results from losing the bet are way too catastrophic.

These optimistic folks have allies in our credulous friends at the New York Times who have been busy studying the tweets from the new Iranian president Rouhani (“Reading Tweets from Iran”) as if they were holy writ, when they should be paying more attention to Ion Pacepa’s new book on how totalitarianism works — Disinformation.

But never mind. The real issue before us is in the coming days is Syria. Bret Stephens and Ralph Waldo Emerson are right: “If you strike at the king, you must kill him.”

Sadly, however, our president is unlikely to follow their prescription — unless Assad and his brother happen to be playing golf and are struck by an errant ball.

(Artwork based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)

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