NEW YORK -- Barack Obama will have to account to history for his ineffectual fiddling in the face of the catastrophe playing out in Syria, much as Bill Clinton must forever contemplate the genocide that unfolded in Rwanda on his watch.
The latest evidence comes via the Obama administration's admission on Thursday that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad has flouted the deadline to eliminate its stocks of chemical weapons under a deal brokered by Russia. By the end of last year all of those weapons were supposed to have been removed from Syria. The actual quantity sent out? Four percent.
You will recall that Obama recklessly put American credibility at stake in delineating as a red line any confirmed use of chemical weapons by Assad -- as in, "Cross this line and terrible consequences will certainly follow." When the regime indeed unleashed such horrors in the Syrian suburbs on Aug. 21, killing hundreds of people, many of them children, Obama did what he is wont to do in the face of a test of his resolve: He pledged strong action, backed away, then assented to a half-baked deal that managed the political optics without altering conditions on the ground.
First, he publicly marshaled what seemed a certain military strike on Assad's capabilities, while signaling to his allies -- chiefly France and Great Britain -- that the fate of global security rested on following through. French President Francois Hollande promised to go along, taking a hit from domestic public opinion. British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to be a good ally, pursuing the blessing of parliament only to be rebuked -- a stinging political defeat.
Then, having led his allies into harm's way, Obama changed his mind. He sought congressional approval for a military strike, and when passage turned dubious, he lent support to the Russian initiative through which Assad promised to destroy his chemical weapons. Which is not happening, it now turns out. Meanwhile, Assad's military position has been strengthened, as has his apparent will to maintain his oppressive rule.
During the debate over how to respond to the chemical weapons attack, I argued in this space against an American-led military strike to punish Assad absent international coordination through the United Nations. I still maintain that a unilateral strike would have been damaging. Yet such a strike would have been vastly superior to the outcome that played out -- lots of threats, no action, and a plainly impossible-to-execute disarmament deal.
In short, Obama's indecision and political inclinations reinforced the status quo inside Syria -- terror, bloodshed and the prospect of endless war. If you're Assad and you are willing to employ any means to cling to power, Obama has effectively demonstrated that you can carry on while ignoring the rhetorical threats of outside intervention. Red lines are drawn in chalk that washes away in the rain.
For students of Obama, this sort of non-policy served up as political palliative is of a piece with other episodes, notably his mishandling of the foreclosure crisis that has assailed American communities during and after the Great Recession.
In that case, Obama's Treasury failed to reckon with the fundamentals of the mortgage market -- specifically, the reality that major banks make a fortune off homeowner distress -- while offering token cash payments to mortgage companies willing to give troubled homeowners a break. When the mortgage companies did next to nothing, shaking down homeowners and flouting their agreements to provide relief, the Obama administration threatened them with consequences. Then, nothing happened.
The stakes in Syria, of course, go far beyond the financial distress of American homeowners. More than 100,000 people have been killed and millions more have been turned into refugees. The Assad regime has employed a strategy of effective starvation against the rebels, denying access to international relief groups seeking to bring in food, medicine and clean water. Rebel armies affiliated with al-Qaeda employ terror tactics such as beheadings.
The existence and brutality of the Syrian war cannot be pinned on any single leader, and certainly not on Obama. It is in essence a geopolitical conflict being waged by Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others via proxy forces, much as the civil war that raged in Cambodia into the early 1990s was really a continuation of the Vietnam War fought to the last Cambodian.
The Syrian war cleaves on religious lines, pitting the great Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia and its Western allies -- who, to varying degrees, support a mix of predominantly Sunni rebel groups -- against the Shiite power Iran and its ally Russia, which fervently support Assad.
Caught in the middle are ordinary Syrians.
This was put succinctly at a recent dinner in Davos by Ghassan Salame, a Lebanese-born man who served as senior adviser to former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and is now dean of the Paris School of International Affairs.
"The Shia have Russia," he said. "The Sunni have the West. The atheists have only God."
Fully ending this tragedy will require a comprehensive political solution that now seems remote, as underscored by a wholly unproductive round of peace talks about to be concluded in Geneva. But in the meantime, basic decency demands pursuit of a humanitarian relief campaign. And that's where Obama's policy failures are so damaging.
The only way to force Assad to accept aid convoys is to make him fear the consequences of failing to do so. He needs to feel pressure from outside powers and anxiety over the possibility of international intervention. He must calculate that a continued campaign to hold on to power by massacring his own people could bring to his doorstep blue helmeted troops acting under the authority of the United Nations.
That threat is already remote, since Russia -- Assad's unwavering protector -- holds a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, giving it veto power. But even if that substantial impediment were overcome, Obama's feckless leadership has demonstrated the reality that, on his watch, consequences are things that are talked about and only rarely delivered.
Those stocks of chemical weapons still parked inside Syria stand as a perfect illustration -- one surely not missed by Assad.