- - Tuesday, September 3, 2013


President Obama has made what the British call a proper cock-up of his leadership, such as it is, in the campaign to punish Bashar Assad in Syria. Nearly everyone agrees on that much. Five years ago, he said he would unite us, and so he has. Now Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, recognize the mess for what it is, and who made it.

President Assad, on the other hand, celebrates how he has split the West, and in particular peeled the British away from the Americans in a way that the world has not seen in many years. The split won’t be permanent; the ties of blood and history, of facing an abyss together on more than one occasion, are what makes “the special relationship” special. But the bitterness will last. Senior British officers attached to the U.S. Central Command were evicted from meetings considering the military contingencies, leaving the French to craft strategy with the Americans. This is deliberate humiliation, telling the British they can’t be trusted as the French can be trusted, and the British won’t soon forget it.

For their part, the British, as one London commentator put it Monday night, haven’t a clue where their loyalties lie. They’re split apart from the Americans and distanced from Europe. A new poll finds two-thirds of the British public wanting to stay out of the Syrian debacle, but half are willing to reconsider if the United Nations inspectors find harder evidence that the Syrian government actually used chemicals against its own people.

This is just about where American public opinion stands, and it certainly accurately describes the mood and spirit of official Washington. America, like Britain, is weary of war, and particularly of another war fought not to win, but to an inconclusive result that only spreads more misery.

Only Mr. Obama could match himself against a man credibly compared to Hitler and lose the match. Little more than a week ago, the president had a fair wind at his back, with the British and Europe eager to sail with him close to that wind. Then he remembered who he was, the leader who leads from behind. Now he’s learning the bitter lessons that a leader in wartime must lead from the front or none will follow. He has given Mr. Assad no reason to be afraid of him, reassuring him that whatever comes, it will be but a pinprick, just a few missiles lobbed “across the bow,” and none aimed at him. A leader who leads never tells the enemy what to expect. Stonewall Jackson said he never told his vest what he didn’t want his coat to know.

The president is months late answering a call for help. The Democrats who are just now discovering that Mr. Assad is evil mocked George W. Bush when he said this many months ago. But Mr. Obama is nevertheless entitled to a respectful audience as he tries to make the case for whatever he has in mind now. Congress seems to be unusually hostile to arguments for another expedition to the Middle East.

Mr. Obama has always held a high opinion of his gifts of eloquence and persuasion, and if he can persuade Congress and the nation that despite his blundering and stumbling he has it right now, his high opinion of himself will be redeemed. House Speaker John Boehner, Sen. John McCain and a clutch of pinprick Republicans announce themselves already seduced by the smooth talk and a presidential nod and wink, but Mr. Obama wants to go to war with a unified nation behind him, which is the only way to go to war. That looks like a very long shot.

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