Many have suggested that President Obama’s opposition to any decisive action on Syria – be it arming the rebels, supporting safe zones, supporting the creation of a government in exile – is political. He doesn’t, the theory goes, want the United States embroiled in any way in another conflict involving Muslims, Arabs, the Arab Spring, whatever. At least not before the elections because a) his base hates war; b) it’s too complicated; c) it’s too expensive; d) whatever. But it’s time to consider another possibility: The president does not believe that the United States has any role to play in the world that goes beyond the targeting and elimination of terrorists planning and operationalizing attacks against the United States – a sort of limited jurisdiction policeman who can act when probable cause impels him, but must otherwise remain in his patrol car, or better still, at the station waiting for a terrorist to be sighted.
Those who disagree are going to point to the surge in Afghanistan and U.S. support for NATO efforts in Libya and suggest those cases demonstrate Obama’s bona fides as an international leader bent on sustaining a global role for the United States beyond the war on terror and trade. But it’s just the opposite. Both the war in Afghanistan that the president is desperately winding down, the war in Iraq that he “ended,” and the intervention in Libya that he reportedly regrets deeply are proof of his evolution away from any leadership role for the United States in the seminal conflicts of the new century.
Don’t get me wrong, Barack Obama isn’t yet a pacifist. I suspect that is the case simply because to be one is politically infeasible in America today. Nor should the drone strikes the president apparently authorizes on a kill by kill basis be construed as anything more than a bloodless (insofar as possible) means of pursuing domestic security. The Awlakis and Haqqanis late of this world disappear like blips on a screen, certainly a more desirable option than their continuing to gad about unimpeded, but not necessarily a better option than their arrest and interrogation.
Yesterday, French President Francois Hollande called on the Syrian opposition to form a government in exile and pledged to recognize it; he confirmed that France is examining the possibility of “buffer zones” inside Syria, something the Turks and others reportedly support. Who doesn’t support either of these moves? Barack Obama. Why? It could be the elections, to be sure. But it’s time to recognize that Obama’s declarations opposing mass atrocities and speeches implying an interest in the prosecution of Assad’s war on the Syrian people are little more than the polite protestations expected of the putative leader of the free world. There’s nothing behind them, because, perhaps, the president intends there to be nothing behind them.