So, let me get this straight. Some red lines cannot be crossed, and gassing Syrian children is one of them. That's what Barack Obama told us Tuesday evening. "The images from this massacre are sickening," he said. "Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk."
The moral imperative is clear, he argued. We cannot let dictators get away with this. On the other hand, the United States can't be expected to solve all the world's problems, either. Therefore, the way ahead is to outsource U.S. foreign policy on Syria to … Vladimir Putin!
So much for the credibility of the world's only superpower. Mr. Obama's staff have been tweeting that this delaying tactic is an incredible display of smart diplomacy. But to most of us, it just makes him look gullible. The President has allowed himself to be hog-tied and hornswoggled by Lilliputians. He was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past, when a blundering giant threw its weight around and only wound up showing the world how incompetent it is. But if there's one thing worse than being a blundering giant, it's being a 98-pound weakling.
On Thursday, Mr. Putin kicked more sand in his face. On the op-ed page of The New York Times no less, he lectured Mr. Obama on diplomacy and peace. "From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future," he said with a straight face. "We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law."
This from the guy who has been arming Bashar al-Assad to the teeth and blocking the United Nations from doing anything about it. Mr. al-Assad has been using Russian weapons to slaughter his own people.
I guess it's always possible that the Syrian dictator (memorably likened to a "human toothbrush" by Christopher Hitchens) will immediately surrender his stockpiles of chemical weapons (which he has claimed he doesn't have), welcome UN weapons inspectors with open arms and give armed protection to the squads of experts who will be necessary to decommission and destroy his various caches of nerve gas, who will somehow do their jobs in the midst of a the bloody civil war that has already destroyed half the country. Or maybe the UN can send in peacekeepers to put it under international control. Or maybe the Easter Bunny will intervene.
More likely is that Mr. al-Assad will use the newly opened diplomatic track to obfuscate, delay, prevaricate and continue killing people, while tying up the process in endless procedural knots. He has now promised to sign the UN Chemical Weapons Treaty – just not quite yet, and only if the U.S. stops arming the rebels, and only if Israel ratifies it first.
Like most everybody else, I'm confused as hell over Syria. The trouble is, Mr. Obama is confused, too. This is not reassuring. He appears to be making it up as he goes along. The only thing that's clear is that he hates – really hates – being commander-in-chief. He was the guy who was going to get the United States out of all of George W. Bush's messes. And now this!
Mr. Bush's problem was that once he made decisions, he never second-guessed himself. Mr. Obama's problem is that he overthinks. He changes his mind and paints himself into a corner. At first, he said Mr. al-Assad had to go. Then he said regime change wasn't in the cards. He said there was a red line Mr. al-Assad mustn't cross. Then, when Mr. al-Assad crossed it, he said it wasn't his red line, it was the world's – even as it became excruciatingly clear that the world wasn't about to do a thing about it.
He said Syria poses no threat to America, but also that attacking it would be in the national interest. On his own, he decided to seek Congressional approval – then trapped himself when it turned out Americans had no taste for another foreign (mis)adventure of the kind he had promised to extricate them from.
No wonder seasoned foreign-policy types are tearing their hair out in clumps. "Words like ad hoc and improvised and unsteady come to mind," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Times.
I've always been deeply skeptical of the case for intervening, for the simple reason that it might wind up doing more harm than good. The two strongest reasons, it seems to me, were to show that there are consequences for violating international norms, and to demonstrate that the United States means what it says.
But Mr. Obama doesn't really mean what he says. So why should anybody take him seriously? In fact, there are no consequences, and everything he and his comically inept sidekick John Kerry have said about human rights and justice and the "moral obscenity" of chemical weapons is just a bunch of hot air. His message to rogue states like Iran is: You can get away with anything. His message to greater powers such as China is that he's incapable of strategic thinking. And his message to allies such as Israel is that they can't rely on him to have their back.
Mr. Obama's Middle East policy is in ruins. He looks like he's way over his head. Now he's let himself get rolled by the biggest bully on the block. In the immortal words of Mr. Kerry, he looks "unbelievably small." And that's not good.