What We Have Already Lost in Syria

What We Have Already Lost in Syria

If you have ever wondered how the entire civilized world could stand by and watch totalitarianism swallow Europe–twice–last week’s pathetic performance by President Barack Obama on the subject of Syria was a grim reminder. Last year, he promised that “any use or proliferation of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would cross a red line for the United States.” Last week, amidst growing evidence that Syria has crossed that red line, Obama refused to commit to any course of action, saying only that more information was needed.

However hard his Democrat surrogates tried to spin that response, the world understood that Obama’s hand-wringing was mere cowardice masquerading as caution. As even David Gergen, that redoubt of mainstream media thought, noted on CBS News’ Face the Nation Sunday morning, “Once a President of the United States draws a red line, it becomes important to the world. Everybody else reads into how he responds to a red line….Why did he draw the red line without knowing what he was going to do next?”

The answer is simple: drawing a red line was a way of pretending to act while in fact declining to do so. The Obama administration could have intervened, early in the Syrian crisis, to pressure or topple the Assad regime–and should have done so, given its importance to Iran. By waiting, it allowed Al Qaeda-affiliated groups to take the initiative, making U.S. intervention and assistance to the rebels a potentially losing proposition. The “red line” was a mere posture, never followed by a presentation of clear consequences.

There may be good reason to consider the use of chemical weapons, or any weapons of mass destruction, a “game-changer,” as Obama puts it. The best justification for not intervening in Syria is that as bad as the regime is, the radical Islamist regime that could result would be worse. But it is hard to imagine anything worse than a regime that is prepared to use weapons of mass destruction against its citizens–one that has already slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians in cold blood. It is arguably as bad as any Al-Qaeda threat.

If President Obama is not prepared to make that call in Syria, then he should never have established a “red line” to begin with. Better to make the case for non-intervention honestly and straightforwardly, and leave it at that. 

For once the U.S. has committed itself to a position, the consequences of backing down are severe. One of the best arguments for the Iraq War is that backing down in the face of Saddam’s defiance would have undermined international law and sharply diminished American power in the midst of the war on terror.

Yes, we had shaky intelligence on Iraq–but the point, as nearly everyone seems to have forgotten, is that in the wake of 9/11, we could no longer take the risk. The intelligence seems stronger in Syria, and the risk of inaction is just as great. We have certainly gone to war for less–and under this president. In Libya, merely the hint of civilian death in Benghazi (ironically) prompted Obama to help knock out a regime that had, belatedly, been cooperating with the international community on the critical issue of non-proliferation.

Somehow, Obama cannot summon the same righteous anger to take any action against the most dangerously anti-American regimes. His wishy-washy response to Syria is an echo of his sad response to the protests in Iran in 2009–that it was the Iranians’ own internal affair to sort out. 

Iran remains, as ever, the key strategic challenge, and it is with Iran in mind that any action in Syria must be considered. The rise of Al Qaeda in Syria and elsewhere must also balance any decision–but can no longer, once past the “red line,” prevent it.

It may be that the most appropriate response in Syria is not any direct military attack but a no-fly zone over Syria that would stop the regime from using its aerial assets to disperse chemical agents or target civilians with conventional bombs. That would enable further, and better, monitoring of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction–and is worth doing besides, to limit civilian casualties and make like more difficult for Assad’s Iranian-assisted and Russian-supplied forces. Obama’s “red line” would seem to demand no less.

Yet his indecision is itself a defeat. There was a time when the world took America at its word, when nations great and small ignored an ultimatum from the President of the United States at their peril. We have lost that power–needlessly, and stupidly. 

Perhaps Obama dreads having to affirm the decision George W. Bush once made, the choice to confront a murderous dictator over weapons of mass destruction–a truly “gutsy call” against which the junior Illinois senator built his entire political persona. What a high price for pride.