On Syria, Has the Obama Doctrine Been Revealed?

In its April 25, 2012 letter to Sen. John McCain, the White House conceded Assad had likely used chemical weapons; the letter assured McCain that the administration is “pressing for a comprehensive United Nations investigation.” Likewise in Libya, Obama’s only response to the Benghazi terrorist attack in which an al-Qaeda affiliate participated has been an investigation.

Two weeks after the Benghazi attack, Obama told the UN it was an “attack on America,” but he quickly moved on to his real message:

But understand, the attacks of the last two weeks are not simply an assault on America.  They are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded -- the notion that people can resolve their differences peacefully; that diplomacy can take the place of war; that in an interdependent world, all of us have a stake in working towards greater opportunity and security for our citizens.

If we are serious about upholding these ideals, it will not be enough to put more guards in front of an embassy, or to put out statements of regret and wait for the outrage to pass.  If we are serious about these ideals, we must speak honestly about the deeper causes of the crisis -- because we face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart and the hopes that we hold in common. Today, we must reaffirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens -- and not by his killers. Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.

We intervened in Libya alongside a broad coalition, and with the mandate of the United Nations Security Council, because we had the ability to stop the slaughter of innocents, and because we believed that the aspirations of the people were more powerful than a tyrant. And as we meet here, we again declare that the regime of Bashar al-Assad must come to an end so that the suffering of the Syrian people can stop and a new dawn can begin. (Emphasis added)

Like the Syrian red line investigation, the Libyan one is continuing -- and now in its ninth month. Neither investigation will lead to any action by the U.S. under Obama.

Iran watches all this and undoubtedly draws its own conclusion: Obama sets rhetorical red lines, not real ones. Even if there is a new September 11 assault on America, and even if his WMD red line is crossed, he will do nothing but investigate. Even if Iran and Hezbollah move dramatically into Syria -- after Obama has stated before the world that Assad’s regime must end -- the response will be a State Department background briefing. The obvious conclusion is that when Iran later crosses its own red line (or rather, once an investigation proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the line was crossed), Obama will shift to containment.

Michael Ledeen writes that Syria is the Spanish Civil War all over again, a conflict with much larger consequences for a wider war, and Emanuele Ottolenghi agrees. History tells us all wars must end. But history also tells us that when a small one ends with a supposed superpower having stated a clear policy but not having much of a Plan A to back it up, and having no Plan B at all, and having earned a reputation for being all talk, the consequences of an even more important conflict will be larger, indeed.