Iraq and Afghanistan are false analogies, but they are apt in one regard. These two wars -- the longest in American history -- have cost thousands of American lives, billions of dollars, and damaged U.S. credibility for an end result that has not (yet) been worth the price. In short, and quite rightly, Obama doesn't want the United States to get stuck with the check on this one.
Iran, Iran, Iran
I've always believed that the other calculation that's influencing the president on Syria is the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. Many believe that bringing down the Assads is the way to weaken Iran, though the fall of the Syrian regime might only intensify the mullahcracy's need to protect itself and accelerate its nuclear program.
Still, the president knows there's a pretty good chance the Iranian issue may come to a crisis, and the United States may be forced to respond militarily. He is going to need Russian and Chinese support for whatever he does -- and he isn't going to get it on both Syria and Iran. Staying out of the Syrian crisis will give him more flexibility and options on Iran. Getting involved militarily could well lead the Russians and Iran to increase their own military support for the Assads too.
This time we're stuck
There used to be an ad for a muffler company: "You can pay me now, or pay me later." Obama chose to pay Syria later -- but now the long-deferred chit is coming due.
It's a headache for a president whose main mission was to get America out of bad wars, not into new ones. But there's likely no way around it -- sooner or later, Obama will have to make good on enforcing his red line. Failure to do so will undermine his credibility, encourage the Assad regime to deploy additional chemical weapons, and send a powerful signal to America's friends and adversaries that we don't mean what we say.
Obama won't be pushed into action -- he will patiently look for a middle option between doing nothing and going all-in. And whatever the president does, he'll ensure he has international support and legal grounds on which to act. The White House letter to McCain that admitted Assad's likely use of chemical weapons already pointed in that direction, declaring that the United States is "pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation" and "working with our friends and allies" to determine what occurred.
But a red line has indeed been crossed -- not only in terms of Syria's use of chemical weapons, but also in the slippery slide toward American military involvement. What Obama needs to decide is whether such military action is designed to deter the use of chemical weapons or topple the Assad regime by giving the rebels the advantages they've long sought -- weapons, a no-fly zone, or direct U.S. military strikes against regime targets.
There's a lot that's murky about Syria right now, but one thing is clear. For America, a messy situation is about to get a whole lot messier.