Exactly a decade ago last week, George W. Bush took to a podium aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier to declare America's "mission accomplished" in Iraq. In fact, America's long war in Iraq had barely begun.
There is a curious parallel between the presidency of Barack Obama and that of his predecessor George W. Bush -- and it is not an altogether happy one. Bush's 'transformational' vision pushed the U.S. into Iraq, squandering the global outpouring of goodwill toward the United States post 9/11.
In stark contrast, Obama's realist approach to foreign affairs has made him weary of committing the U.S. to any foreign adventures. He came late and reluctantly to declare that Hosni Mubarak's time as Egypt's president was over, and was equally reluctant to declare military action during the Libyan revolution. Yet those two actions bought him more goodwill in the Arab world than his set-piece speech at the University of Cairo -- it is precisely that goodwill that is now in danger of being squandered in Syria.
Under Obama's presidency, the U.S. has consistently tried to keep at arm's length from the region. Yet foreign affairs -- the Middle East especially -- have a way of defying political platitudes. For Obama, his dithering over what to do in Syria has led to what is now a broader war. Indeed, by doing nothing for so long, Obama has created the conditions for a regional conflict as surely as Bush's inept invasion of Iraq did. If he does not make the right choices now, Syria will be Barack Obama's Iraq.
For long stretches of the last two years, events in Syria seemed to be at a stalemate. (In reality, they were not, but the daily grind of war, of small territorial losses and gains struggled to make the news agenda. The massacres that dotted the landscape of conflict occasionally registered, but the daily grind of war that claimed tens of thousands of Syrians was largely invisible.) Events are now escalating with alarming speed.
Within the past few days, the Syrian conflict has moved in new and disturbing directions. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has quietly introduced its chemical weapons arsenal into the conflict, and both Hezbollah and Israel have openly entered the war.
The Syrian conflict has now drawn in almost all the region's most powerful countries: Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Israel are now deeply involved, in one way or another, on one side or another. (The exception, so far, is Egypt, the Middle East's largest country.) If Obama feared getting involved in Syria would spark a regional conflagration, he was only half right. The regional war is already underway.
Much like Bush's legacy is intimately wed to Iraq, what Obama does now could forever define his presidency. Yet by procrastinating for so long, the president's options for action have shrunk.
A year ago, imposing a no-fly zone could have been done with wide support from Arab states and Turkey. Today, imposing a no-fly zone is both harder militarily with the entry of Hezbollah, and harder politically with the entrenchment of Russia and the meddling of Iran. Funneling arms to the rebels seemed like the safer option -- except the US declined to allow sufficiently lethal weaponry to reach the rebels, allowing a space for better-armed and more radical groups to gain support.
Obama's credibility -- and that of the United States -- is draining away as well. Assad has been subtle about testing America's "red lines," gradually escalating his use of missiles and airstrikes against civilians, and now slowly introducing chemical weapons. It was always incongruous of Obama to specify the use of chemical weapons as a "red line," as if the deliberate slaughter of innocents on such a scale could be allowed a pass. But, once such weapons were used, Obama compounded the error by inserting not one but two qualifiers into his denunciation of the regime: It was the "systematic" use of chemical weapons against "civilian" populations that would not be tolerated, he declared. What message would Assad and his generals have heard in the presidential palace in Damascus? That the occasional use of chemical weapons, or even the systematic use of such weapons against the rag-tag Free Syrian Army, would be fine. Obama's red lines, as Sen. John McCain said over the weekend, appear to be written "in disappearing ink." Tehran, Moscow and Beijing will have heard that message clearly.
Syria may not have been high on Obama's agenda for his second term, but how he reacts to this new escalation will have repercussions for U.S. policy far beyond the Levant. Not intervening in Syria as civilians die of chemical attack could be as bad for America under Obama as intervening spuriously in Iraq was for George W. Bush.