Goldberg: Barack Obama's three mistakes over Syria

Syrian rebels observe as a comrade prepares to

Syrian rebels observe as a comrade prepares to throw a homemade grenade towards an army position in the Al-Amariya district of the northern city of Aleppo. (October 20, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

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Syria's dictator, Bashar al-Assad, isn't the only leader who is crossing "red lines" these days. U.S. President Barack Obama has also crossed a few. Here are three of them:

1. He crossed a red line by asserting the existence of a red line that he then failed to treat as a red line. It's now clear to American allies, including the U.K., Saudi Arabia and Israel, that the Assad regime has deployed small amounts of chemical weapons against its opponents. It seems likely that the regime did this partly to test the West's reaction. And so far the West has failed to react.

Once Obama publicly stated that the use (and even movement) of chemical weapons was unacceptable, and once his allies told him there was a high likelihood they were indeed used, he was required to take steps to secure the weapons, to ramp-up support for the opposition or to impose a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. He's moving in slow motion on this question, and Assad is undoubtedly drawing lessons from his hesitancy.


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2. Obama also crossed a red line by frightening allies through indecision. The U.S. is still the greatest power in the world, and its friends look to it for leadership. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and even the U.K. and other European powers don't quite understand Obama's reluctance to get more deeply engaged in the Syrian crisis. (Note to apoplectic isolationists: Engagement doesn't have to mean armed intervention. Thank you.) Allies have been lobbying for more than a year and a half for Obama to provide weapons and training to the Syrian opposition, and the White House still won't commit.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was in Washington on May 13 to talk to Obama about Syria, and Cameron has found himself in the unlikely spot of playing the liberal interventionist to Obama's hypercautious foreign-policy realist. Cameron's statement at a joint news conference hinted at his frustration: "Syria's history is being written in the blood of her people and it is happening on our watch." By "our watch" he means "America's watch." Cameron knows that only the U.S. has the heft -- diplomatic and military -- to change the course of Syria's history.

It's a topsy-turvy world we live in: American allies resented George W. Bush's administration for telling them what to do. Today, those allies are upset with the Obama administration for refusing to even make suggestions.

3. Obama has crossed yet another red line by allowing Iranian aggression in Syria (and Lebanon) to go unchecked. The Iranians are the Syrian regime's most important allies. Obama has taken a tough stance on Iran, tougher than any American president since the Islamic revolution brought extremist clerics to power in 1979. Yet, when the opportunity arose early in the Syrian uprising to check Iranian power by supporting anti-Assad forces -- well before radical Islamists saw an opportunity to dominate the opposition -- Obama responded indecisively. Presumably, the Iranians are making judgments about Obama's willingness to confront them, and they aren't the judgments he would want them to make.

Obama now faces no good choices in Syria. He faced better ones a year and a half ago. Syria, early in the uprising, presented the administration with a unique opportunity. In Egypt, it wasn't in the American national-security interest to see President Hosni Mubarak go, but his departure corresponded with our values. In Syria, Assad's overthrow would be in line with both our values and our interests. Even today, a U.S.-led effort, requiring no troops on the ground, could make the cost to Iran of supporting Assad unacceptably high. But this calculus doesn't seem to be generally understood in the White House.

So the question arises: Now that the Syrian government seems to have blown past the chemical-weapons red line, and has overseen the murder of as many as 80,000 people without triggering much of an American response, is there anything Assad can do that would cause Obama to intervene more aggressively?

"Once the furies have been unleashed," Obama told reporters, it is "very hard to put things back together."

The shame of this statement is that American intervention, early on, could quite conceivably have kept these furies in check. Now that they've been unleashed, stopping the killing in Syria becomes almost impossibly hard.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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