Foreign affairs columnist Anne Applebaum (who is not a conservative) on our current international relations debacle:
The central problem of the Obama administration’s Syria policy is not that the president has failed to use military force but that both the president and his top officials have implied that they might use force, then backed away, then once again picked up the rhetoric. To put it bluntly, President Obama has also failed to understand the ways in which an American president’s words will be interpreted around the world.
For example, in August 2011 Obama declared: “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” To Syrians fighting on the ground, that may have sounded like a promise that U.S. military support, or at least substantial military aid, was imminent. Neither was forthcoming. This June, the White House authorized the CIA to begin arming some of the Syrian rebels. This sounded even more like a promise, but as of last week that aid also had yet to arrive.
The president famously declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line” in Syria. But now that the red line has been crossed, the president has decided that he needs congressional support before he can respond. This is perfectly legitimate — but shouldn’t it have been obtained earlier, at the time the promise was made? Certainly the Syrian regime interpreted the president’s sudden and unexpected desire for congressional support as a “historic American retreat.” Its media gloated accordingly. . . .
As happened in Bosnia, American pontification, prevarication and postponement in Syria have preempted the policies of others and delayed negotiations. The civil war continues; with every month the devastation increases, the refugees multiply and the levels of political extremism rise. Back in June, the Group of Eight called for “urgent” peace talks. But there are no negotiations to speak of, in part because the Syrian rebels continue to hang on for Western military support that always seems to be just around the corner but never quite materializes.
Two decades ago, five years ago and today, the source of the problem is the same: The president of the United States wishes to represent things — justice, fairness, international norms — that he cannot, or will not, or doesn’t know how to defend in practice. In the future, it would be far more just, and far less cruel, for the president, and the rest of us, simply to say nothing at all.