This week, President Obama has been talking up his foreign policy accolades in New York and sending his surrogates to applaud all of his many successes, from opening up Cuba to inking the Iran nuclear deal. The trouble is the gaping wound that goes untreated in the cradle of our civilization: Syria.
Overlooking this, or at least failing to even nod at it, as speeches by Obama's foreign policy advisors appear to indicate, is an abdication of the responsibility to protect innocent civilians. It also is a way to dodge the proverbial elephant in the UN General Assembly: that Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers have played this administration for fools.
This administration needs to acknowledge Russia for what it is: a global pariah that in any sane world would be ostracized and called out for the atrocities it commits time and again. Instead, it is embraced by this administration, as if it were just a misunderstood uncle who means well.
Indeed, the single greatest impediment to world peace today is not China's rise but Russia's arrogance. From the bombing of hospitals and humanitarian shelters in Syria to the hacking of computer servers of U.S. political parties, Russia, it would appear from a God's-eye-view, exists merely to exact mayhem. Its motives reflect those not of a revisionist state but rather of a Neanderthal caveman or locker-room bully with a Napoleon complex - it literally hacked the World Anti-Doping Agency's website as retribution for being shut out of parts of the Olympics for doping allegations - itself a heinous crime that got off with a slap on the wrist.
But arrogance, especially in the hands of a country whose diminutive yet cocksure leader is an analogy of his country's place in this world, only works if there are gullible enablers. It requires suckers.
Some of Obama's handlers recently voiced on NPR that historians will look back kindly on this administration for its many accomplishments and for taking the long view. Doubtful. Obama and Kerry's fool-me-twice foreign policy on Ukraine and Syria will be analyzed by historians who will be slapping their foreheads in dumbfounded astonishment, much the way today's historians do when they look at the ascendancy of fascism in the 1930s. The counterargument of this administration's shills is equally as puzzling. Well, if Obama had carried thru on his 2013 "red line" pledge in Syria, we'd be knee-deep in a Vietnam-like morass and unlikely to have changed the outcome. Plus, what about ISIS? Terrorism loves nothing more than a power vacuum, after all. These arguments are nonsense, and they reflect the kind of rationalization bystanders do when they fail to stop a crime. Well, it would not have made a difference or I could not have intervened in time. It's a tragedy but it's not on my conscience. The Syrian civil war is the international equivalent of the Kitty Genovese murder. If the resurgence of right-wing parties in Germany and other parts of Europe is any indication, perhaps we are living in a post-humanitarianism world. Perhaps we are growing numb to the bite-size morsels of suffering we get from our social media feeds. Perhaps we are living in a world where evil and insidious crimes go unchecked. Perhaps Obama is just a creature of the turbulent times we live in.
Ah, but the world today, we are told, is a safer place. Intractable wars are swiftly wrapping up in places like Colombia. Countries from Cuba to Myanmar are slowly opening up. Ebola was kicked in West Africa. Nominally all the above are true, even if they do not warrant a victory lap by this White House.
Indeed, whenever Obama glides confidently across the world stage at UNGA each fall, I always wince. That is because all roads, and deep down I believe he knows this, lead back to Syria. It is not Rwanda or Iraq, arguably the greatest blunders of the two previous administrations. In some ways it is worse, given that it is a slow-moving train wreck that has allowed his administration more than ample time to fix the tracks. Rwanda was a blur. Iraq deteriorated rapidly yet give Bush credit for his course correction (however late it came).
I would argue that if we get Syria wrong, we have only ourselves to blame. To those who say the decapitation of the Assad regime would lead to a worse civil war or the imminent takeover of ISIS, consider the alternative of doing nothing - the world's largest humanitarian and refugee crisis since World War II. To others who fret that Syria could become another Vietnam for American forces, I posit that Syria is much more strategically important than Vietnam ever was, and we arguably have more partners in the region to shoulder the burden now than we did then.
Obama has maintained his cool swagger as the commander in chief who does not do stupid stuff even as places like Syria burn to the ground on his watch. He is perpetuating this myth that the US military cannot solve the world's problems, and while humility in international relations is a welcome antidote to hubris, it is not a strategy for preventable suffering.
If the slaughter of some 500,000 civilians in the heart of the Middle East is not seen as significant enough to warrant even a modicum of military intervention, then we as a nation need to have a long and serious conversation on why we have such a large military in the first place. If passive retrenchment will define us in the decades ahead, fine. But let's get our military ends, ways, and means inline to reflect this new reality and international redistribution of power. As the world's erstwhile policeman, let's put away the proverbial baton but let's also be frank about the dire consequences of such a policy. Call it what you want - retrenchment, restraint, realism - but inaction in the face of global suffering is a recipe for brushfires turning into barnyard infernos.
This is not a naïve retread of Madeleine Albright's line from the Balkans, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" I go to school every day teaching cadets about the laws of war, the theories behind military innovation, and the way the international system is supposed to work. I believe, perhaps naively, in the power of the US military to do good and to protect lives. Far from those who say we have gotten too involved overseas militarily, I believe we have become a hapless bystander to world events.
There are triumphs this administration can point to, yes. But so long as half a million civilians can be innocently slaughtered in the heart of the Middle East and the world can turn a blind eye, we have a long way to go. There's no such thing as an innocent bystander.