On the eve of the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Barack Obama made the strongest possible case for the use of force against Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime. But it wasn’t a very strong case. Indeed, it was built on a false premise: “We can stop children from being gassed to death,” he said, after he summoned grisly images of kids writhing and foaming at the mouth and then dying on hospital floors. Does he really think we can do that with a limited military strike—or the rather tenuous course of diplomacy now being pursued? We might not be able to do it even if we sent in 250,000 troops and got rid of Assad. The gas could be transferred to terrorists, most likely Hizballah, before we would find all or even most of it. And that is the essence of the policy problem Obama has been wrestling with on Syria: when you explore the possibilities for intervention, any vaguely plausible action quickly reaches a dead end.
The President knows this, which makes his words and gestures during the weeks leading up to his Syria speech all the more perplexing. He willingly jumped into a bear trap of his own creation. In the process, he has damaged his presidency and weakened the nation’s standing in the world. It has been one of the more stunning and inexplicable displays of presidential incompetence that I’ve ever witnessed. The failure cuts straight to the heart of a perpetual criticism of the Obama White House: that the President thinks he can do foreign policy all by his lonesome. This has been the most closely held American foreign-policy-making process since Nixon and Kissinger, only there’s no Kissinger. There is no éminence grise—think of someone like Brent Scowcroft—who can say to Obama with real power and credibility, Mr. President, you’re doing the wrong thing here. Let’s consider the consequences if you call the use of chemical weapons a “red line.” Or, Mr. President, how can you talk about this being “the world’s red line” if the world isn’t willing to take action? Perhaps those questions, and many others, fell through the cracks as his first-term national-security staff departed and a new team came in. But Obama has shown a desire to have national-security advisers who were “honest brokers”—people who relayed information to him—rather than global strategists. In this case, his new staff apparently raised the important questions about going to Congress for a vote: Do you really want to do this for a limited strike? What if they say no? But the President ignored them, which probably means that the staff isn’t strong enough.