To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, this is the way Syria ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper. We are back where we started — lots of people dying — as the crisis recedes with a high five and a sigh, rather than with America blowing some stuff up.
The locus of our original outrage — 99,000 Syrians lost in a brutal sectarian war — had almost nothing to do with Assad’s alleged use of WMD. Thus the Syrian violence never could be addressed through even successful negotiations about mostly irrelevant WMD. It would have been as if, at the height of the Rwanda crisis, we had threatened to bomb an RPG depot to force the Hutus and Tutsis to continue with their machetes — then backed off, had an ongoing dialogue with Putin about such dangerous rocketry (as Rwandans continued at it with edged weapons), and called our bluff “non-stylish but smart diplomacy.”
So we moved on from Syria. The U.S. continues to express outrage and so continues to allow Assad and his many enemies to kill lots of people until one side loses or wins. The only difference, after the red lines were issued, hyped, and forgotten, is that while Assad once was ordered to step down, he is now a legitimate talking partner in global discussions. Using WMD worked. It certainly proved a good way for Assad to show off his French-accented English and stylish haircut and suit on prime-time American television. WMD proved a far better deal than a costly new Russian air-defense system in deterring U.S. bombs.
The present trajectory of endless haggling and rug-buying over WMD simply reduces the issue to its status before Obama’s unwise red line — mostly one of benign neglect, and mostly supported by the proverbially “tired” American people. After all, Obama can say to us, “Aren’t you happy with me that I didn’t do the stupid thing I promised to do?” Well, yes, sort of like the relieved police suicide negotiator after the would-be bridge-jumper finally slinks down off the pylon.
Obama is relieved that there is a critical but transitory moment of destiny in every crisis, real or manufactured. His own psychodramatic stare-down has long passed with his blink. It would be near impossible to work the public, the Congress, and the world back up into another melodrama. Again, because Obama never really wished to do anything in Syria other than bluster, there is no reason for him now to reopen the issue. And because Obama did not act when thousands died and he ordered Assad to go, and almost did act when WMD was used and did not, why act at all anymore? Even his critics prefer the virtual Obama.