Remember when President Obama used to warn Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to stop his mass killing and step down?
Moammar Qaddafi’s dictatorship had just collapsed under Western bombing. The murders of Americans in Benghazi and the subsequent postwar tribal mess in Libya were still in the future. In those heady days of 2011, the rage was “lead from behind,” as the Arab Spring was blooming and social-media types were calling for democracy in the streets of Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood was proclaimed to be largely “secular.” Echoing the pseudo-disavowals of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini years earlier, the American-educated Mohamed Morsi insisted that his Islamist movement was not interested in running Egypt.
Now comes a depressing Arab Winter of chaos and growing Islamic authoritarianism. Egypt is a mess, with a wrecked economy and wide-scale persecution of Coptic minorities. No one yet knows exactly what happened in Benghazi. More than ever, the stubborn Assad clings to power. He calculates that killing 70,000 of his own is far better than sharing the fate of deposed Arab dictators such as Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak.
The result is that Obama’s threats about Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction are now contextualized and internationalized. We sorta, kinda want the United Nations, our allies, or maybe the Arab League first to certify Assad guilty of using weapons of mass destruction. Then we can eventually, at some time in the future, organize a coalition to address the problem.
The president finds himself in a terrible dilemma with Syria — partly of his own making, partly due to the lose-lose nature of the Middle East. Obama rightly understands that to remove repugnant Arab dictators tottering amid insurrection is not difficult, given overwhelming American airpower. But he also realizes that the freewheeling tribal and sectarian mess that usually follows can be almost as odious as the authoritarian police state that has crumbled.
The third alternative — fostering a postwar democracy, as in Iraq — requires a multi-year investment of American blood and treasure of the sort that then-senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama damned as foolhardy. He remembers how Iraq imploded during the second term of the George W. Bush presidency. Without that unpopular war, fierce antiwar critic but otherwise relatively unknown and untried Barack Obama might have never won the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama, better than anyone else, also knows the rules of today’s political opportunism. Currently, liberal hawks are calling for intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds. They are echoed by many conservatives who see intervention as a way of hurting enemies such as Iran and Hezbollah while helping friends such as Arab reformers and Israel.
Yet, put Americans on the ground in Syria, fighting both the Assad regime and al-Qaeda, with rising costs in blood and treasure at a time of near national insolvency, and yesterday’s assorted zealots will quickly become today’s “I told you so” critics.
Obama must remember the fiery 2002 speeches in the Senate by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Harry Reid in favor of authorizing the Iraq War. He would have read the impassioned pro-war columns in the New York Times and Washington Post. So he must also recall that all such interventionist zealotry soon turned from “my brilliant three-week victory over Saddam” into “your botched multi-year occupation” once the Iraq insurgency took off, American costs skyrocketed, and the 2004 elections loomed.
Without a credible follow-up of using force, Obama’s once-soaring warnings have become stale and no longer earn any deterrence. Even a Nobel Peace Prize laureate can thunder only so many times about “red lines” and “game changers.”
After serial but inconsequential deadlines to cease their nuclear enrichment, the Iranians now snooze when lectured. Assad bets that the danger of American retaliation for crossing the WMD red line is far smaller than the danger of losing his rule — and his life.
North Korea looks at the latest Obama remonstration to act responsibly in the same way most Americans regard his erstwhile promises to close Guantanamo within a year or to dismantle the Bush-Cheney antiterrorism protocols: mellifluous idealism not necessarily followed by unpleasant implementation.
China increasingly believes that the U.S. president is more interested in reducing our stockpile of deployable nuclear warheads than in warning aggressive People’s Liberation Army generals that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are firmly protected under the American nuclear umbrella.
In the end, we are left only with hope for change. Maybe Iran and North Korea will come to their senses and behave. Maybe Assad will finally fall. Maybe the Syrian insurgents will prove to be pro-American democrats after all. And maybe opportunistic senators and journalists will not play politics by one day abandoning the very policies that they once urged their president to adopt.
And then again, maybe not.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, The Savior Generals, will appear later this month from Bloomsbury Press. You can reach him by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.