The debate among pundits seems to be that President Obama's handling of the situation in Syria was merely incompetent or outright idiocy. A few extreme right pundits have gone so far as to argue that the President has deliberately schemed to weaken America, while a few far left cheerleaders have proclaimed that the President was a Machiavellian genius who snookered Putin into getting exactly what he wanted all along.
I told a friend this week that Obama's performance had left me a little nostalgic for George W. Bush. I might not have agreed with Bush's choices, but you have to admit that he wasn't decisive. He might not have been the world's most gifted speaker, but when he took a position he and his underlings were prepared to defend that position to both the public, to congress, and to the rest of the world. Obama didn't seem ready to make the case even to himself. There's a show on Comedy Central called Drunk History where speakers narrate stories while intoxicated, getting their facts muddy, their narration meandering to odd places, until the speakers inevitably fall out of their chairs. Watching the stuff coming out of the White House, I detected the same sort of staggering, stumbling unsteadiness. Drunk diplomacy.
Yet, I have to admit, the end result is almost certainly the best possible case scenario. Obama managed to stumble himself right out of the hole he'd been digging for himself. The situation in Syria wasn't something we were going to solve by throwing drones at it. Obama is a one trick pony when it comes to military force--bomb bad guys, see what happens. I'm not certain it's effective, and I'm extremely certain it's not moral. Colin Powell famously invoked the (fallaciously named) "Pottery Barn" doctrine: You break it, you buy it. Until Obama, with a few exceptions like Reagan's bombing of Libya, the presumption was that, if we used military force against a nation, we than had an obligation to go in and provide security. Germany, Japan, Iraq, even Afghanistan... the stated goal was to leave these nations in better hands than they were when we decided to act against them. Anarchy was never an acceptable goal.
The only goal Obama seemed to have for Syria was anarchy. Punishing Assad only helped the rebels, and the rebels don't exactly strike me as nation building patriots. Bombing chemical weapon sites would have left big craters filled with dangerous substances at best, or wound up unleashing clouds of toxic materials to spread for miles at worst. Of course, you could not target the chemical weapons, just weaken Syria's infrastructure by taking out some power stations or bridges. But, this seems like an attack against the people of Syria, who have enough problems to deal with without us providing this kind of assistance. Our last option was to target Assad's troops and weapons, leaving him weakened. In this case, the rebels might overthrow him, and suddenly they are the ones controlling the chemical arsenals. Won't we all sleep better after that?
In the end, the only ethical choices before us were a full scale Iraq style invasion where we went in and stabilized the situation on the ground and took command of the chemical weapon stockpiles, or... we do nothing. The world is full of atrocities. We cannot intervene to stop them all. Attempting to do so would require us to conquer nation after nation, in a never ending quest to impose order.
Some people worry the world will become a more dangerous place if America isn't there to act as the world's policeman. Quite possibly. But I would argue that we help make the world a more dangerous place if our only course of action is to lob bombs onto foreign soil and hope for the best. That's not the behavior of the word's policeman. It's drive-by shooting diplomacy. Let us be done with it.