If only the Syrians could be brought around, presidents have believed for generations, life would be so much easier. The United States wasn't alone in this illusion -- the Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Russians felt the same way. Like the Wall Street banks, Syria was then, as it is now, judged as simply too big to fail. There was something perversely comforting about having the Assads around.
I had my own fair share of illusions during my government career, but the Assads were never one of them. I could never quite understand my colleagues' fascination with the brutal Syrian regime. To me, Bashar al-Assad was a brutal dictator who wanted to be the Frank Sinatra of the Middle East -- obsessed with doing things his own way to the point that he priced himself out of peace with Israel and a relationship with the United States. It's striking that every other Arab state, with the possible exception of Libya, managed to establish a close relationship with the United States. Not Assad.
Third, Obama's approach toward Syria has been managed by the realists. This stands in contrast with his Libya policy, where liberal interventionists in the administration and neocons outside clamored for action. This group of realists includes the president, who knows his options on Syria aren't great. He's being told that American leverage isn't great and that if he calls for Assad's head and the Syrian despot survives, he'll have lost access to a key player in the region.
And after all, what could he do that would deter a regime in a fight for its life? Pull U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus? Impose a travel ban on Assad and his family? Press the Europeans to freeze Assad's money?
In a world of symbols, these steps may make an important point about American values. However, none of them will make a difference in how events play out in Syria.
Simply put, the Obama administration is worried about creating a worse situation if Assad falls. Take your pick of scary scenarios: civil war, a Sunni fundamentalist takeover, or a new base for al Qaeda.
Of course, there would also be an upside to Assad's demise. A brutal regime would have fallen; Iran would be denied an Arab patron and a critical window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli arena; Hamas would likely drift further into the orbit of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and Hezbollah -- though hardly defanged in Lebanon -- would lose a critical patron. At this point, however, the administration clearly judges that the risks of U.S. action outweigh the potential benefits.
Bad options, bad outcomes. So, for now, we watch and wait to see where the arc on the Assads is headed -- north or south. But if the Assads do survive, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Washington at some point resumes a business-as-usual posture with the only surviving repressive Arab dictator that's too big to fail.