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posted: 5/1/2013 5:00 AM

Red lines as red herrings over Syria

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Watching the PBS "NewsHour" the other night, I caught a debate between two academics about whether the U.S. should intervene in Syria. The British, French and Israelis say that Damascus has used chemical weapons, although Washington is not as sure. (Do you think George Tenet could find out?) So in the meantime the president will adhere to his policy of doing next to nothing and thus ensure that the war continues. One of the academics wanted America to intervene while the other did not. He kept saying, "We don't need another war in the Middle East," having apparently not noticed that one is already under way in Syria. In the movie, he will play Barack Obama.

Obama is a latter-day Zeus. He throws these thunderbolts of diplomatic cease-and-desist orders with some regularity. He has called the use of chemical weapons by Syria a "red line," which is diplotalk for you'd better not. He said that if Damascus did use such weapons, it "would change (his) calculus." Months later, he calculated that Syria might not know what his calculus was, so he said WMD would be "totally unacceptable" and there would be, under such circumstances, "consequences." At moments like these, I imagine Obama outfitted as the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz": "Put 'em up. Put 'em up, Assad."

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The use of what is thought to be sarin gas is a serious concern and if it did happen -- the U.S. has only "varying degrees of confidence" that it has -- it was the absolutely predictable consequence of the White House's policy, which is pretty much not to have one. The administration has steered clear of the Syrian conflict, refusing to take -- or support -- the sort of actions that could have brought matters to a close a long time ago. Now the situation has descended into what Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy used to call "another fine mess." It is, I concede, a lot harder to intervene now than it was about a year ago.

The Syrian civil war has taken the familiar course. The fine gentlemen of the middle class who rose up in protest at the stupidities and cruelties of Bashar al-Assad's regime were replaced -- as they almost always are -- by young, non-bookish types who are adept at killing. Over time, leadership goes to the zealous who in this case are jihadists. A secular revolt becomes a sectarian bloodbath, massacre begets massacre and the sweet rhetoric of reform transmogrifies into bloodcurdling calls for revenge.

So, in some sense, the red line of chemical weapons is really a red herring. America's failure to intervene early on the side of the moderates has already made conditions so much worse that no correction may be possible. Syria does indeed have oodles of chemical weapons, and the challenge now is to keep them from falling into the hands of jihadists, particularly the Al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaida ally. If this happens, the jihadists are certain to ship some of the WMD to their buddies elsewhere -- Iraq, Jordan and the usual chaos in the Sahel. If possession of the gas was the No. 1 issue, the U.S. should paradoxically prop up Assad. He's been faultless at keeping his goodies out of the hands of the crazies.

The U.S., on the other hand, doesn't control much of anything. At one time, it could have relatively easily imposed a no-fly zone, grounding the Syrian air force, which has been pounding civilian centers. It could have armed the rebels of our choosing. It could have sent a clear signal to the Syrian military that Assad was certain to lose and it should take action. Somewhere in the military was a high-ranking officer who would have liked to spare his country further agony.

Obama's policy regarding Syria has been a strategic failure. More perplexing and more alarming, it has also been a moral failure. It has permitted -- or at least not impeded -- the deaths of upward of 70,000 people and created a humanitarian calamity with well over 1 million refugees. The region is being destabilized. People are living in misery. I can assure them that Washington is studying the problem.

Obama must have known that sooner or later he would have to act on Syria. His plan, if it can be called one, is to let events force his hand. He's issued red lines and virtual ultimatums, so sooner or later he'll have to do something. He gives the appearance of prudence, but looks can be deceiving. It's actually an abject failure of leadership.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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