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Obama’s Box Canyon
Our Hamlet-in-chief wanted simultaneously to act and not act.


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Victor Davis Hanson

How could eleventh-hour Russian proposals ever solve Obama’s original paradox? Tragically, they can only make it worse, as was Putin’s intent.

Yes, the Russians are terrified of radical Islamists’ gaining power in the Middle East. They share our own opposition to Islamic terrorism.

Ostensibly they might wish to see America as an occasional ally. But those concerns are outweighed by the fact that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis is both useful to Russia and bothersome to the United States. In terms of raw emotion, Obama’s sermonizing without muscularity irritates Putin to the point of wanting to gratuitously disabuse the U.S. of its bottled piety.

When the Russian Cheshire cat is finally through — after weeks of breakthroughs, impasses, promised and pseudo-inspections, delays and deadlines, open and shut doors with Iran and Syria — Obama will be back to his original dilemma, which was not over 1,000 killed by WMD at all, but over 99,000 slaughtered in a civil war.

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WMD use, remember, was the first straw that Obama grabbed to mitigate criticism that he sighed while thousands died; the second straw he snatched to save himself was Putin’s ludicrous offer of negotiations to round up WMD.  Yet even if Obama is lucky and Assad/Putin do not deliberately test him by again using WMD, Obama will still have taken us 360 degrees back to zero: once again agonizing over wishing to stop the non-WMD mass killing and not wishing to use force or polarize Congress, the American people, and our allies.

As for the absurd White House spin that Russia now “owns” Syria, Putin never owns anything, much less owns up to anything. To the degree that we are weakened, Assad strengthened, Iran empowered, and the insurgents discredited, Putin prances about the world stage. But if things get even worse in Syria, and if the U.S. is forced to make a messy intervention to save face, then Putin will be happy to walk away, lament the fate of his barnacle Assad, welcome another American entanglement, congratulate himself on the cost/benefit calculus of making Obama look inconsistent and weak — and strut off in pride, quite willing to restart the melodrama with a post-Assad Syria or a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, and to advise plenty of others how it is all done.

Is there any escape from Obama’s box canyon?

Only in the sense that just as there was once a way not to go in, there is also a way to get out: Keep quiet and our powder dry, vet the Syrian opposition, determine to what degree it includes non-Islamist groups that would be better than Assad, and then quietly support them. Doing no more harm is about all that is left.

In theory (and it is a long shot), the victory of the Syrian Free Army would both end the violence and weaken the Iranians and Hezbollah — while adding anxiety for Putin as comeuppance for his machinations. Yet at this point, I doubt that any of those agendas can be realized, or matter much if they were. More likely, the Syrian finale is going to resemble Somalia or the Sudan, perhaps Libya, or what Afghanistan may become after we leave. We, not Putin, will own the embarrassment as the world’s inept and fossilized superpower.

We hope the Iranians do not wish to enter Putin’s negotiating circus. But they already sense that Obama really does want them to cease enrichment and really does not wish to use force to stop them. Our Hamlet-in-chief could get very old fast.

Even such an embarrassing backout assumes that Assad won’t use WMD again just to embarrass the U.S., that the endless negotiations over WMD will eventually take world attention away from Obama’s empty bluster, that Americans can stomach the endless back and forth between savage insurgents and Assad’s vicious security forces on the premise that the violence is something that we had no part in and cannot fix — even as the dare-not-speak-their-name realists whisper that it might be in our long-term interests to see our pro-Hezbollah enemies duke it out with pro-al-Qaeda insurgents.

To paraphrase Tacitus, when they make a mess, they call it diplomacy.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is The Savior Generals, published this spring by Bloomsbury Books.



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