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In this regard, we should not expect much good from bombing Syria, given the difficulty of sorting out the various insurgents and our loud prior announcements of limiting the use of force.

To the degree we are not willing to insert ground troops, it is more likely both that we won’t accomplish much and won’t get trapped in a quagmire.

It is wiser to obtain congressional approval, and the more foreign allies that join the better. Having a clear objective, a sound methodology and a definition of victory is essential — whether in big or small interventions.

So far, the president can’t decide on the real objective in Syria, much less how to obtain it. Is the goal the elimination of weapons of mass destruction, the punishment of President Bashar Assad for using these weapons, restoring the president’s credibility after unwisely issuing red lines, immediate U.S. national security interests, the removal of Mr. Assad himself or help for the insurgents?

If the president neither obtains congressional approval nor makes the attempt to go the United Nations, the attack will probably be unpopular abroad — even more so without any allies or American public support.

Finally, promising in advance that whatever we do will probably be short and limited will make it likely that, if it fails, it will be forgiven and forgotten. If it is deemed successful, it will have little, if any, lasting, strategic effects.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.