A criminal races down the city street clutching the purse he’s just snatched from an elderly woman. A policeman chases after him. The policeman yells, “Stop! I’m a policeman! Stop! Really! I mean it! You stop right this minute!”
The criminal continues racing away, confident that he can outrun the cop.
Then the cop fires a warning shot into the air.
Suddenly, the criminal freezes. He drops the purse and throws both hands into the air.
That warning shot didn’t harm the purse snatcher. It did, however, get his attention. It reminded him of possible future consequences. It reminded him of the cop’s superior weaponry. in the crook’s mind, it transformed purse snatching from a harmless game into a suicide plan.
A limited strike on Syria would be the equivalent of a warning shot in the air. Very loud explosions in his neighborhood get a dictator’s attention the way televised speeches simply can’t. They remind him of “shock and awe” and Normandy and Hiroshima. The dictator can’t help but think, “Oh yeah. THAT America.” The one he’s ultimately helpless against.
We’ve seen examples of how civilized people react to crimes against humanity. We’ve seen the appeasement model that led to WWII. We’ve seen a lengthy war in Iraq to punish a crime that was never proved. History judged that appeasement can be a crime in itself, and so can a war launched prematurely. The U.S. response to a government that poisons its children will be judged in the context of history.
A warning shot isn’t a long term strategy, or an exit plan, or punishment. It’s not regime change. Arguing against a limited military action because it will fail to resolve all Syrian problems feels like arguing the cop has only two choices: he should let the purse snatcher escape or else shoot to kill. A warning shot won’t change a purse snatcher’s heart or punish him. But that’s not its mission.
It’s just supposed to get the criminal’s attention in a way nothing else can.