Syria is looking more and more like a deep dark hole US President Barack Obama is tumbling into.
The “red line” he warned the Assad regime not to cross a year ago has become a hollow catchphrase, a gesture that is noble yet devoid of substance. The French have a word for it: beau geste.
There is growing evidence that the Assad regime has crossed Mr. Obama’s red line. Hundreds of people died after deadly sarin gas was unleashed on rebel-held areas outside Damascus last month. The Assad government denies it was behind the attack, and points its finger at the rebels.
Mr. Obama’s response should have been swift and decisive. A surgical missile strike to take out a chemical weapons plant, perhaps, would have sent a clear message to the Damascus government that Washington will not let such a horrific act go unpunished.
If Mr. Obama had ordered the bombing, he would have some difficulty explaining and defending the decision in Congress and the international community, but the battle would have been half-won by this time. To mollify his critics he could say that if he had not acted expeditiously, Assad would have been emboldened to commit more atrocity, and so would have other rulers with a cruel bent as well. He could also say that he would not stand idly by as thousands are gassed to death.
There would be an outcry, yes, and political consequences. But it would be fait accompli, and Mr. Obama would have come out as a resolute leader not to be messed with.
Bill Clinton did not drown under a wave of censure when he ordered cruise missile attacks on perceived terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan just days after the US embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania were bombed, resulting in heavy American casualties.
Mr. Obama had that small window of opportunity, but he dithered. That window is now closed.
Now he faces a rising tide of disapproval for military action in Syria at home and abroad. Mr. Obama himself acknowledges that it will be difficult swaying the US Congress over to his side.
He also made a pitch at the Group of 20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday, but only half of the group signed on.
Mr. Obama can’t look to the United Nations for backing, either. Ahead of the G20 meeting, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wagged a finger at any military action against the Assad regime without the Security Council’s seal of approval.
So where does that leave Barack Obama? Adrift in political limbo, his prestige badly dented. He’s now back-pedalling.
“I didn’t set a red line,” he declared. “The world set a red line. My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line. And America and Congress’s credibility is on the line.”
Those are the words of a man desperately trying to escape blame.
But let’s look at the fallout from Mr. Obama’s wavering. Bashar al-Assad and his cohorts must be gloating. The atrocity will soon be an afterthought, and the rage will dissipate, they must be thinking.
Russia, which insisted it needed more solid evidence the Assad government had used chemical weapons against its own people, will gain pogi points for having called for prudence. And the Syrian rebels will feel abandoned and more vulnerable.
The red line will be completely erased and forgotten.