The impending US strike against Syria brings Sunzi to mind.
On the face of it, it appears to be a failure of strategy and policy. The most famous aphorism from Sunzi is 3.3 (from the Griffith translation; Chinese from China Text Project):
For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.
But this hardly exhausts what Sunzi might contribute to the matter. In a personal communication the other day, a military historian remarked that Sunzi is perhaps the most problematic of the classic texts on strategy because it suggests that victory is possible without doing the hard work of actually fighting. This is, to my mind, an incomplete critique. The famous win-without-fighting idea describes a best case scenario, and it orients strategic thinking to broader contextual and longer-term thinking. The text also has much to say about how to go about the hard work of actually fighting if the best case scenario is unattainable.
And that is very much what the Syrian situation is now. From a realist perspective, It is hard to see a good outcome in terms of US foreign policy. Regime change could very much turn against US interests: a reconstituted Syrian state could take on an even more anti-American posture than Assad. But a victorious Assad might also pose more problems for the US than he has in the past. Thus, any use of US force will have to be limited because decisively tipping the military balance in one direction or the other is not necessarily in US interests. And that seems to be what Obama and his military planners have in mind: impose a discrete punishment on Assad for using chemical weapons.
But it is not at all clear what that will accomplish, either. It may mark certain kinds of actions - use of chemical weapons - as out of bounds. But Assad was hanging on without relying of such actions. It might assauge some sense of moral outrage. But if it does not really impact the military balance, then it does nothing to forestall more morally reprehensible actions in the future. What if next week, after US airstrikes, Assad's forces kill twice the number of innocents by conventional means. Will the US bomb again? As long as the horrible civil war grinds on, there will be no end of moral outrages.
So, it is hard to see what will be gained by bombing Syria. And innocents might be killed in the process, which becomes the ultimate reason to oppose it.
But what would Sunzi do?
Although he certainly values economy (i.e. not using more force nor killing more people than necessary), and counsels speed and avoidance of protracted warfare, he also recognizes that some situations favor an offensive strike (Chinese source):
One defends when his strength is inadequate; he attacks when it is abundant.
Compared with Syria at this point, the US is certainly in the position to attack. And that attack can unfold as Sunzi expects:
...those skilled in attack move as from above the ninefold heavens.
That is pretty much how the US will do it: from the air.
But the key question is: what should be attacked? Simply deciding between bombing Syria's remaiing chemical weapons capability or taking a somewhat wider approach to degrading its military forces is, from Sunzi's point of view, inadequate. The use of force must be strategically oriented:
Thus, what is of supreme importance in war it to attack the enemy's strategy:
What is Assad's strategy? Survival is his most likely priority. But, as mentioned above, the US cannot really attack that because his fall is not necessarily the best outcome for the Us. Thus, as long as the longer-term strategic interests of the US remain uncertain, there is no real rationale for an attack of any sort.
Just because the US has the offensive advantage and can attack does not mean that it strategically should attack. Sunzi's ultimate advice to Obama in this circumstance would be:
If not in the interest of the state, do not act. If you cannot succeed, do not use troops. If you are not in danger, do not fight.