Bashar Assad won Round 1, and there probably won’t be a Round 2. The momentum toward punishing the Syrian regime, payback for what everyone agrees are war crimes and crimes against humanity, has dissipated. Momentum blunted is difficult to recover.
Through leaks, winks and nudges, President Obama first did a reasonably persuasive imitation of Sylvester Stallone and the Terminator, as the bold and decisive man of war bubbling with testosterone. He sounded as if he were trying to remind the world of George H.W. Bush who on the eve of the campaign to evict Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, famously cried: “This will not stand.”
Barack Obama trying to look tough is about as convincing as a little boy showing up in his first long pants with a popgun, and by the end of the week it was clear that the only leaders he had frightened were himself and David Cameron, the prime minister in London. Soon all across the West “leaders” were crawling away from their enthusiasm for confrontation. The photographs and videos of the stricken children and the descriptions of the hideous way they died had gone down the memory hole.
President Obama gave an interview to PBS at midweek to insist that he really hadn’t made up his mind about what he could do to punish the brutal Syrian generals. He might send “a shot across the bow,” to tell Mr. Assad to “stop doing this.” You could hear him stamp the presidential foot.
There was bipartisan agreement in Congress that finding justification for punishing the Syrian military is no “slam dunk,” to echo the unfortunate metaphor the director of the CIA employed to argue for the “shock and awe” of the second Gulf War.
The president’s dithering might well reflect legitimate concern, and in any event it reflects the lack of public enthusiasm in the West for doing anything about the Syrian outrage, beyond “lobbing a few missiles into the men’s room of the Kremlin,” to recall a jest from the Cold War. There’s surely a suitable men’s room at Syrian army headquarters. But there has been no actual outrage; mostly it was revulsion at the plight of the children.
Bashar Assad will read bluster as sufferance to continue with business as usual. Caution in the West has given way to reluctance on the way to complacency in the usual quarters. Britain, in league with France, led the early bluster and promises of retribution, only to retreat to the usual diplomatic argle-bargle by the end of the week. The Cameron government said it was now in “no rush” to do anything and was content to wait for the U.N. fact-finding team in Syria to report its findings, no doubt by Christmas.
The diplomats are concerned that they have nothing to conclusively tie Mr. Assad to the chemical attacks, no emails, no admission of guilt, no piece of paper with his authorizing signature on it. A spokesman for the State Department concedes the obvious, however, that a commander in chief is ultimately responsible “even if he’s not the one who pushes the button.” No one ever found a piece of paper with Hitler’s name on it, either.
There are arguments, some better than others, for staying out of the internecine wars of the Middle East, where despots replace despots and points of Islamic theology are never settled. But President Obama and his counterparts in the West have made things infinitely worse by drawing red lines, viewing with alarm and warning of bow shots, and following up with more verses of the same old song.
The president’s reassurance to the Syrian generals that he’s not after “regime change,” that he intends only “limited, tailored approaches” and he’s wary of “getting drawn into a long conflict, not a repetition of, you know, Iraq” (take that, George W.) is all the reassurance Mr. Assad needs to continue his campaign of eradication of his own people, with chemicals if that’s the menu choice that pleases him. Better to have turned a blind eye and said nothing than to demonstrate that America no longer has the ability, or the will, to project power.
The president’s one-day-hot, the next-day-lukewarm dithering mimics the English nursery rhyme (perhaps there was an equivalent in his Islamic school in Jakarta) about the grand old Duke of York: “Oh, the grand old Duke of York / He had ten thousand men / He marched them to the top of the hill / And he marched them down again.”
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.