Barack Obama has a real problem. It's self-inflicted, really -- and it's a cautionary tale against articulating public positions that may seem correct and convenient at the time, but that can pose serious challenges down the road.
Obama has been confronted with evidence from a variety of credible sources -- including from his own intelligence community, with some caveats -- that Assad used sarin gas against his own people. Ever since August 2012, Obama has held that Syrian use of chemical weapons constituted a "red line" for the United States, and that crossing it would be a "grave mistake" for Assad. The president is now faced with a dilemma: Defending his red line could undermine his carefully crafted strategy of steering clear of direct military involvement in the Syria crisis.
Here are some things worth keeping in mind as the president grapples with his conundrum.
No more red lines
Whatever Obama does on Syria, he should make sure that he doesn't say anything that he's not prepared to act on. "As president of the United States, I don't bluff," he famously said with regard to U.S. policy toward Tehran. It's just as good advice when it comes to America's approach to Damascus.
U.S. street cred is already at all time low in the Middle East. We don't need what remains of U.S. credibility to be lost in the gap between the president's words and his deeds.
This has obvious implications for that other famous red line on Iran. First, there's a huge problem with defining where that line lies: Israel says Iran must be denied a nuclear capacity, and has put percentages on the danger zone for enrichment (see Bibi's cartoon bomb); Obama says Iran must be denied a nuclear weapon. That gap is already enormous enough even before we consider the issue of how to enforce any red lines, which have a way of turning pink when states reach the moment of truth. The broader point is: Who's going to take any U.S. red line on Iran seriously if the president isn't prepared to enforce his red line on Syria?
Syria isn't an opportunity
To Obama's critics, particularly the inestimable Sen. John McCain, Assad's use of chemical weapons isn't only a problem -- it's a chance for Washington to up the ante against Assad. Fair enough. But let's be clear about one thing: Syria was never an opportunity, and it's going to get worse before it gets better. After two years of violence, religion-fueled animosity, and civil war, it's not a land of milk and honey for the United States.
There are no good options in Syria. Choices run the gamut from unacceptable (do nothing) to ineffective (provide non-lethal assistance) to risky (arming the rebels or establishing a no-fly zone). Caution is still the order of the day.
Obama's reluctance has been justified by events
I know that's not a popular judgment in Washington, but it's true. The president's calculations have been risk-averse, matching the uncertainties of the situation. The rebels are divided and dysfunctional, far too many in the opposition are Islamist extremists, the humanitarian crisis is unmanageable -- and even if President Bashar al-Assad departs, it is uncertain who or what will assume responsibility for the mess that is left behind.
From Obama's perspective, one thing is clear: It won't and shouldn't be the United States. Even acting in concert with others, he's not prepared to own Syria if it means billions in financial and economic aid, let alone American peacekeepers on the ground.