woody zimmerman 118 2007Gilbert and Sullivan – the dynamic duo who turned Britain on its (musical) ear in the late 19th century – inserted some stock phrases into many of their operas. “Oh Rapture!” for instance, appeared in nearly every show – usually with uproarious effect.

Other phrases were not as common, but sometimes more pointed in their references. My personal favorite comes from the brilliant G & S show, Patience – a wickedly funny spoof on the “perfect poet” craze of the 1880s, when gay “pioneer” Oscar Wilde was making colorful newspaper copy with foppish clothes, stylized poetry recitations, and outrageous quotes.

In Patience, the perfect poet was a dreamy, foppish character named Bunthorne. W. S Gilbert obviously modeled him after Oscar Wilde, except in one important aspect. Instead of having same-sex proclivities, Bunthorne is hot for the village milkmaid, Patience. Beautiful of form and face, the title character trips merrily about town singing and giving Bunthorne palpitations of the heart. All this is happening while a score of the local ladies are mooning after Bunthorne, who reads them poetry and dazzles them with his extravagant attire.

The subplot of this absurd scenario involves the “heavy dragoons,” a company of which is stationed near the town. Accustomed to the lavish attention of the town’s ladies, the dragoons find themselves jilted due to Bunthorne’s magnetic appeal. Accordingly, they adopt his tactics, in the hope of turning things around with the ladies. Several dragoons dress foppishly and attempt the moves and poses that Bunthorne has used so successfully.

One of the neo-fops is The Duke – a nobleman who joined the dragoons to escape the boredom of having everyone bow and scrape to him. As he moves uncertainly about the stage in his newly adopted attire, he utters his famous line: “I don’t like it. I don’t know what it means…

In recent days both “Oh Rapture!” and the Duke’s comment came to mind in the context of the political kerfuffle involving Mr. Obama, Syria, the gas weapons, the Red Line, the Russkies,  etc.

In August 2012 Mr. Obama said that the use or movement of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” that would “change [his] calculus.” As nearly as I can determine, it was just a throwaway line that he probably thought would burnish his presidential image during the presidential campaign. I seriously doubt if he expected it to become a policy touchstone that would be thrown back at him a year later.

But our most media-savvy president must have forgotten about TV clips, which are as close to indestructibility as we’re likely to see in this lifetime. The president’s political opponents did not forget the “red line” quip. When reports began to come in showing rows of bodies – evidently the victims of poison gas – a clamor arose for Mr. Obama to explain what he proposed to do in response to his red line being crossed.

At first, perhaps this looked to the president’s inner circle like a golden opportunity for him to step up, commander-like, and smite Syria and the swinish Bashar Assad with a military blow. This show of military machismo would surely pump up his approval rating, and divert public- and media-attention away from the dismal state of the economy, the debt ceiling, the “phony scandals,” etc. Oh Rapture! Here was a timely miracle that seemed almost too good to be true. Visions of George W. Bush’s sky-high approval ratings, as he prepared to make war on Iraq in 2003, must have been dancing in the heads of White House apparatchiks.

As usual, however, when something looks too good to be true, it probably is. I wondered if Mr. Obama snoozed through the Going to War lesson in War 101. To prepare the country for war, two political factors are absolutely fundamental: (1) know exactly what you are trying to do; and (2) make that objective entirely clear to the people that you want to support and fight the war.

This exact protocol is followed in the most unlikely quarters. Even ruthless dictators like Hitler always contrived some “rationale” for starting a war. No matter how trumped-up and absurd the pretext might look, there was always a story-line, accompanied by pathetic film-clips of German Frauen weeping about mistreatment by the enemy that the Reich’s soldiers were going to hit. (This format was used even as the pretext for war with Poland – an absurd scenario as ever was.)

Mr. Obama evidently considered the preparation-protocol unnecessary in his case. Surely, the American People would fall right in line behind him as he rode his white charger valiantly into battle – figuratively, at least. An explanation of national interests and a declaration of military objectives were not needed. Indeed, he hinted that he might act without Congressional approval, if necessary. “This can’t wait” was his all-too-familiar mantra, once again. His personal assurance that this action was “urgent” would be enough for the American people.

Except that it wasn’t enough for a much larger segment of America than Mr. Obama or anyone else might have thought. This is where the Duke’s line popped up. (“I don’t like it; I don’t know what it means...”) It wasn’t the far-left, anti-war crowd, but millions of ordinary Americans who stood up and said not only “no,” but “Hell no!” to bombing (or anything else) in Syria.

The aging hippies were strangely silent – confused and unsure of what to do when The Peace President pranced into view, mounted on his fiery steed. Democrat firebrands like Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton – once angry critics of President Bush’s wars, who branded his generals “liars” – now enthusiastically backed the “unbelievably small” action planned for Syria. (In a way, it was a conversion “miracle” – an epiphany, almost a rapture.)

Besides the key first principles of war, cited above, I also cite two immutable axioms:

(1)   Send American armed forces to war only when national safety is threatened.

(2)   Do not take a war-weary nation to war unless the enemy is literally coming down the chimney.

If he ever heard of these axioms, Mr. Obama gave no sign of it. Having made a vow that the American people wouldn’t let him keep, he was deep in a hole of his own digging when Russian President Vladimir Putin tossed him a rope-ladder early this week. Taking an off-hand remark by Secretary of State John Kerry as a serious proposal, Mr. Putin offered to broker the transfer of Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile to UN control, if we agreed to forego military action against Syria. It was another miracle of deliverance for our valiant president. (Oh rapture!)

As I write this, the chattering class is busily dissecting the Russkies’ offer, and Washington pols are breathing hearty sighs of relief for being delivered from the fiery choice of defying either the president or the American people. Perhaps war can be averted after all. What a happy day!

Years ago, when the USSR was still alive and kicking, I was working on a technical project that featured a computerized display of the “star wars” problem – i.e., war in outer space between satellite-launched defenses and Soviet ICBMs. One of the visitors to the lab was the famous arms-negotiator Warren Christopher. He made no formal comments, but I was party to a brief conversation in which he said to us, “Boys, don’t trust the Russians any farther than you can throw them…” He said it with a wry smile, but he clearly wasn’t joking. He spoke from long, sobering experience on the world stage, and he was in deadly earnest.

Sound foreign policy is inextricably linked to American national security. It is much more than sound bites, speeches, and political posturing. It is a very serious business. We need leadership that doesn’t stagger from one crisis to another and that certainly isn’t dependent on life-preservers tossed to us by characters of dubious trustworthiness. We really have to cut this out.

“I don’t like it! I don’t know what it means…”