In 1971, Navy Lt. John F. Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
How do you ask a man to be the first man to die for a mistake?
This week, Secretary of State John F. Kerry came before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to make his case for war with Syria — a war that a majority of Americans don't want, the administration still can't clearly justify and for which Mr. Kerry himself made a very poor case.
A war that Mr. Kerry even refuses to call a war — at least not in the "classic sense," he assures us.
The American people certainly see this as a potential new war, and the country is war-weary. After well over a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, they are not eager to commit to another questionable intervention. Americans also know that whatever assurances this administration pretends it can give — that there will not be boots on the ground, that this will not be a protracted engagement — are all negotiable once the war actually begins.
The Washington Examiner's Tim Carney writes: "Some members of Congress say they'll support a limited strike on Syria. But this is a fantasy. It relies on limiting two things that naturally defy limit: war and presidential power."
Mr. Carney continues: "War cannot be tamed. War might turn out according to plan (for everyone who didn't get killed or maimed), but that's largely a matter of chance. Men cannot control war — not even with the greatest military ever; not even with chants of 'Yes, we can'; not even with a Nobel Peace Prize."
To the extent that Mr. Kerry made a case at all — along with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel — the secretary was not very convincing. Even as the committee predictably approved authorization of the use of military force, the administration still failed to demonstrate any clear national security connection the United States has in Syria. The supposed justification for intervention to stop the use of chemical weapons still does not tell us how military action would actually deter their use. We're still not absolutely sure about the origins of their use.
What we can be fairly sure of is that we will be helping rebel groups in Syria who are affiliated with al Qaeda. President Obama might not be able to articulate a national interest, but any American with memory can recognize a potential powder-keg component of this situation that should make us at least wary of helping the rebels. President George W. Bush promised in 2001, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them." Are we now on the eve of giving military shelter to the same people who attacked us on Sept. 11?
This is the elephant in the room that Mr. Kerry and nearly every other politician in support of war with Syria refuse to talk about. They can laugh or scoff all they want, and they can act as though the rebel group al-Nusra won't benefit from our efforts, but the enemy of our enemy Mr. Assad is not our friend — and he is still our enemy.
No reasonable person can look at the tragedy in Syria and not condemn the atrocities. However, what America can reasonably be expected to do about it is an entirely separate question. Neither Mr. Kerry nor anyone else in this administration has been able to answer such questions adequately. For war, "classic" or otherwise, essential questions concerning the national interest should be answered.
America is an exceptional and exemplary nation, seen as a beacon of freedom and justice around the world. We can't always be the policemen of the world, though, as the last decade has taught us.
President Dwight Eisenhower once said: "I have only one yardstick by which I test every major problem — and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?"
By every measure, war with Syria is not good for America. What's good for the Syrian rebels, Mr. Kerry, is not necessarily good for America. What's good for this president politically is not necessarily good for America.
The administration has utterly failed to explain what good might come out of this war for the United States. There are too many troubling variables and dangerous unknowns.
This war would be a mistake.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Homeland Security committees.