Syria is a cruel puzzle. It is hard to see any promising roads forward -- either for the children and families who remain in danger of being slaughtered there, or for the United States.
It is cursed with a messy, violent, multisided civil conflict. Among those opposing the brutal dictatorship of Bashar Assad are violent extremist groups, some of them sworn enemies of the United States. A dozen or so countries and groups are intervening with weapons, money, armed fighters or all three. Yet there is no common disposition for collective action on the part of Arab nations or Syria's neighbors. The United Nations is paralyzed by China and Russia, allies of Assad.
For the United States, the most sobering reality here is also the hardest to absorb. No matter how heinous the crime -- in this case, the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on civilians, killing 1,400 last month -- solo retribution in a heated, confusing and dangerous situation is almost certain to have consequences we don't want and to be used by other actors as fuel in their own plans for outrage and violence. The most dangerous poker game in the region is that between the West and Iran. No move in Syria can or should be made without assessing its impact on the Iran nuclear situation.
We continue to pay a terrible price for leading others into war in Iraq a decade ago with false representations, as the British Parliament underscored by voting against intervention late last month. We will continue to pay that price for a long time to come.
It hurts to see our president squirm and flail. Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are no doubt each saying to themselves: "This is terrific. I win if the United States intervenes, and I win if it backs down. Either way I have more options, more influence, more support and less opposition." For Iran, unilateral, illegal U.S. military intervention may be a godsend that goes a long way toward legitimizing its drive to acquire nuclear weapons.
There are actions here that are supportable. We could go into Damascus with a humanitarian mission of medical and other help for the survivors in the families that were massacred, and use military forces only if the humanitarians were attacked. We could support the arrest of Assad and his top military leaders as war criminals, and simultaneously create havoc electronically with Assad's personal finances and activities. The stance represented by those actions might make the point we really want to make: that gassing civilians is a brutal act beyond the pale, and that we will use our power to respond, bring help, and hold those responsible to account -- even in the heart of the dictator's country.
But a remote-control attack on Syrian government military targets, in which some civilians will inevitably be killed, carried out alone in an arena of multi-dimensional carnage with no real "good guy" in sight? And where the likelihood of negative outcomes dwarfs the chance of positive outcomes?
Not in this bloody free-for-all. Not alone. Not just because the president once uttered an unfortunate ultimatum about a "red line."
It's stupid to make a threat that's not well thought out and that you may not wish, or be able, to carry out. But it is even more stupid to carry out that ill-considered threat and unleash consequences you cannot foresee just because you said you would.
At some point you have to understand that it's time to cut your losses to avoid even worse consequences. That time is now.
Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.