Last night, the many contradictions in Barack Obama's strategy toward the Syrian conflict finally came into sharp focus. He reiterated his commitment to deterring any further use of chemical weapons, but said nothing at all about the Assad regime continuing to kill the innocent by more conventional means. No mention was made that, since the sarin attack three weeks ago, regime forces have kept up their offensives against the rebels throughout Syria, inflicting heavy casualties. In a war in which the death toll has now reached well above 100,000, the president's policy does nothing to stop continued use of the weapons that have already accounted for 99 percent of the killing. Last time I checked, deliberate targeting of noncombatants was still a war crime -- whether caused by chemical or conventional munitions.
But there is something even more troubling than the president's too-narrow view about exactly when the killing of innocents requires a response: His speech last night made clear his belief that "we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force." This is a most curious admission, given that he and so many in his administration have been saying for more than two years that "Assad must go." A rationale for threatening military action in retaliation for WMD use is, as the president noted, to shore up American credibility as a world power. What does it do to our credibility when, after years of tub-thumping for regime change, the frank admission is made that the commander-in-chief doesn't believe he has the power to tip the balance in a civil war? Let's just say it doesn't help -- and may result in Assad really declaring open season on the rebels now. The president is particularly confusing on this point, given that the United States and NATO relatively recently made a decisive difference in the Libyan civil war -- with, as administration members now intone like a mantra, "no boots on the ground." Thus, the problem seems more one of will than capability. Still, reluctance to act in concert with our rhetoric is quite damaging to credibility.
The obsessive attention to keeping our servicemembers well out of harm's way is paradoxical as well. If a cause is, as President Obama said last night of the Syrian crisis, "so plainly just," the question then must be, "how just before you are willing to risk any soldiers' lives?" Americans have fought and died in many conflicts that featured far less moral clarity than the Syrian situation -- with the 60,000 Americans killed in Vietnam heading up that list. If the cause is just, the most effective military means should be pursued, not those deemed most acceptable in political terms. To be fair, the president may be acting out of an admirable reluctance to go to war at all. His speech hinted at this when he said: "I've spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars.... Our troops are out of Iraq, our troops are coming home from Afghanistan." The problem with these statements, though, is that the president, so focused on ending our involvement in overseas conflicts, is willing to do so even if the wars in those places rage on. We are out of Iraq today, but al Qaeda is back and the country is burning. And if we ever pull completely out of Afghanistan, heaven help the Afghans.
Given all the aforementioned contradictions and paradoxes, it should be abundantly clear that the Russian diplomatic initiative aimed at averting an American attack by calling for placing Syrian chemical weapons under international control is something of a master stroke. Assuming acceptance of the Russian proposal by all sides -- Damascus has already agreed -- the process will take a long time to carry out. This will be time during which the war that Bashar al-Assad is currently in the process of winning can be won without fear of outside military intervention in support of the rebels. In this case, stand by to see a continuing stream of fearful images of Syrians suffering at the regime's hands. And if the president finds, eventually, that he can take no more, and decides to launch his envisioned sharp but limited bombardment, Syrian insurgents are going to suffer more at the hands of a wounded regime that is nevertheless still in power.