Remember when President Obama used to warn Syria’s Bashar Assad to stop his mass killing and step down?
Moammar Gadhafi’s Libyan dictatorship had then just collapsed under Western bombing. The killing of Americans in Benghazi, Libya, and the subsequent postwar tribal mess in Libya were still in the future. In those heady days of 2011, the rage was “lead from behind,” the blooming Arab Spring and social media types calling for democracy in the streets of Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood was proclaimed to be largely “secular.” Echoing the pseudo-disavowals of Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini years earlier, the American-educated Mohammed Morsi insisted that his Islamist movement was not interested in running Egypt.
Now comes a depressing Arab Winter of chaos and growing Islamic authoritarianism. Egypt is a mess, with a wrecked economy and wide-scale persecution of Coptic minorities. No one yet knows exactly what actually happened in Benghazi. More than ever, the stubborn Syrian leader clings to power. He calculates that killing 70,000 of his own is far better math than sharing the fate of other deposed Arab dictators, such as Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak.
The result is that Mr. Obama’s threats of yesterday about Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction are now contextualized and internationalized. We sorta, kinda want the United Nations, our allies or maybe the Arab League first to certify Mr. Assad guilty of using weapons of mass destruction. Then we can eventually, at some time in the future, organize a coalition to address the problem.
The president finds himself in a terrible dilemma with Syria — partly one of his own making, partly also a result of the lose-lose nature of the Middle East. Mr. Obama rightly understands that to remove repugnant Arab dictators tottering amid insurrection is not difficult, given overwhelming American air power. He also realizes, though, that the freewheeling tribal and sectarian mess that follows can be almost as odious as the authoritarian police state that crumbles.
The third alternative — fostering a postwar democracy, as in Iraq — requires a multiyear investment in American blood and treasure of the sort that Mr. Obama damned as foolhardy when he was a senator and presidential candidate. He appreciates how Iraq imploded the second term of the George W. Bush presidency. Without that unpopular war, fierce antiwar critic but otherwise relatively unknown and untried Barack Obama might have never won the Democratic presidential primary.
Mr. Obama, better than anyone, also knows the rules of today’s political opportunism. Currently, liberal hawks are calling for Syrian intervention on humanitarian grounds. They are echoed by many conservatives who see intervention as a way of both hurting enemies such as Iran and Hezbollah, while helping friends such as Arab reformers and Israel.
Yet, putting Americans on the ground in Syria, fighting both the Assad regime and al Qaeda, with rising costs in blood and treasure at a time of near national insolvency can transform yesterday’s assorted zealots into today’s “I told you so” critics.
Mr. Obama must remember the fiery 2002 speeches of then-Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John F. Kerry, and Sen. Harry Reid authorizing the Iraq War. He read the once-impassioned pro-war columns of New York Times and Washington Post columnists. He also recalls that all such interventionist zealotry soon turned from “my brilliant three-week victory over Saddam” into “your botched multiyear occupation” once the Iraq insurgency took off, American costs skyrocketed and national elections loomed.
Without a credible follow-up of using force, Mr. Obama’s once-soaring warnings have become stale and no longer earn any deterrence. Even a Nobel Peace Prize laureate can only so many times thunder about “red lines” and “game-changers.”
After serial but inconsequential deadlines to cease their nuclear enrichment, the Iranians now snooze when lectured. Mr. Assad bets that the danger of American retaliation for crossing the red line on chemical weapons is far less than the danger of losing his rule — and his life.
North Korea looks at the latest Obama remonstration to act responsibly in the same way most Americans regard his erstwhile promises to close Guantanamo within a year, or to dismantle the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols: mellifluous idealism not necessarily followed by unpleasant implementation.
China increasingly thinks that the U.S. president is more interested in reducing our deployable nuclear warheads than in warning aggressive Red Army generals that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are firmly protected under the American nuclear umbrella.
In the end, we are left only with hope for change. Maybe Iran and North Korea will come to their senses and behave. Maybe Mr. Assad will finally fall. Maybe the Syrian insurgents will prove to be pro-American democrats after all. Maybe opportunistic senators and journalists will not play politics and one day abandon the very policies that they once urged their president to adopt.
And then again, maybe not.
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.