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Emerson, Syria, and the Principal Enemy


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.