Magazine October 14, 2013, Issue

Stumbling on Syria

President Obama says that his Syria policy is lacking only on “style.”

That is one way to put his repeated drawing of red lines over the use of chemical weapons, his crabwalk toward war, his about-face decision to seek congressional authorization for force, his utter inability to make the case for that authorization, and his desperate grasp at a Russian diplomatic initiative that took advantage of a gaffe by his secretary of state.

If this had been messy improvisation issuing in a glorious outcome, it would be one thing. But the substance is as dubious as the process. We are currently negotiating with the Russians on the exact parameters of the deal for the Syrians to give up their chemical weapons. If prior entanglements with rogue states over weapons of mass destruction are any guide, the negotiating will never end. The Syrians will niggle and delay to frustrate inspectors for years.

The accomplishment here is that Bashar Assad probably won’t again use his chemical weapons. But the deal puts any larger strategic goals out of reach. Our engagement with the regime to try to get it to carry out its stated obligations will make us its perverse quasi-partner. The more Western-oriented rebels feel betrayed, and there are signs that they are collapsing as extremist elements continue to gain. Meanwhile, Iran is not hesitating to train fighters for the proxy war in Syria that it intends to win. Iran and Hezbollah, along with their fellow traveler Russia, look even likelier to achieve their goal of preserving Assad than they did a month ago.

Vladimir Putin took to the pages of the New York Times to rub our noses in it. In an op-ed combining cynicism and sanctimony in a stomach-turning stew, the Russian president invoked the pope and international law to oppose U.S. intervention in Syria, never mind his arming of Assad in a civil war that has killed more than 100,000. He concluded with a jab at American exceptionalism, warning that no country is exceptional. He was too modest—Russia has proved exceptional over the centuries at centralizing unaccountable political authority and trampling individual rights.

The Syria episode is not that consequential in itself, but it nonetheless may be an inflection point in our standing in the world. A superpower should be trusted by its friends and feared by its enemies, and we are neither. Our position in the Middle East is collapsing, while the much-touted “pivot to Asia” looks more like a slogan than a strategy. The president cares most about “nation-building at home” and is clearly uncomfortable with the assertion of American power. This was unmistakable in his marble-mouthed case for a strike in Syria.

Credibility can seem an elusive commodity, but it is the coin of the realm in international relations. When we eroded our deterrent with ill-advised statements or acts of weakness, we got the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. When our deterrent was at a high point in the immediate aftermath of our toppling Saddam Hussein, Libya gave up its nuclear program and, evidently, Iran temporarily stopped its uranium enrichment.

The price for our weakness will inevitably come.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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