Watching the PBS "NewsHour" the other night, I caught a debate between two academics about whether the United States 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 underway 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."
The use of what is thought to be sarin gas is a serious concern and if it did happen — the United States 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 United States should paradoxically prop up Assad. He's been faultless at keeping his goodies out of the hands of the crazies.