When the red line was established, it was hardly thought that the potential U.S. response would be sending over more body armor. But now that using a new tougher list of adjectives appears to be the prime change in U.S. behavior, an inadvertent message has been sent: America's bark is worse than its bite. This is a dangerous message to send to dangerous people. Thus, while drawing red lines is risky behavior, Obama appears now to be on a course toward demonstrating that ignoring them after the fact is even riskier.
It could be argued that the U.S. intelligence community is still evaluating the evidence of the chemical attacks. Perhaps it is doing much more behind the scenes than the public knows. The reality, however, is that the situation is deteriorating. Further, U.S. efforts to marshal others into a constructive role have produced mixed results. Some, like the government of Qatar and to a degree that of Turkey, stand accused of supporting extremists. Others, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have sought a different path but think that without stronger U.S. leadership, effective international action is not going to be possible.
The problem of course, is that the American people's appetite for further deep involvement in the region is near zero. Iraq and Afghanistan have proved to be costly disasters. Americans have very serious problems at home. New energy resources in the United States have led to a sense that Americans will find it ever easier to distance themselves from the region's problems. America's European allies have no organized foreign policy to speak of, have less appetite than the United States does to be involved on the ground in the region, and have even greater problems at home. The Russians are being systematically unhelpful. The Chinese are only willing to get involved at the margins, essentially making the case themselves that they are not ready for prime time. Regional actors range from the malevolent in Iran to the relatively weak, at risk, motivationally questionable, or all of the above among most of the moderate states. And none of these factors seems likely to change anytime soon.
Thus, we face a region in which there are few effective external or regional stabilizing forces. At the same time, Syria has illustrated that even if the United States, Europe, or others are slow to take significant action, extremist groups seeking to capitalize on the action are moving quickly to take advantage of the void. Estimates have Syria's al-Nusra Front, which has pledged its fealty to al Qaeda, now surpassing 12,000 in strength, with foreign fighters drawn from every corner of Europe and the surrounding region.
This leaves a choice between protracted chaos and autocrats. It doesn't take an Einstein to do the math. In that equation, democracy and the hope for real political reform in the region seem likely to lose out.