Bumbling our way into a retreat

The speech was left to encompass a contradiction. The president wished to reassert his credibility while engaging in a forced concession. So the beginning and end were an argument for limited military strikes based on an appeal to American exceptionalism. The rest was an explanation of why such action would not be forthcoming — and is no longer likely. A strike Obama could not effectively justify even with videos of gassed children will not be justified by news of a stalled or inconclusive inspection process.

The resulting message was boldly mixed. Assad is a moral monster — who is now our partner in negotiations. The consequences would be terrible “if we fail to act” — which now seems the most likely course. America “doesn’t do pinpricks” — especially when it does not do anything. “The burdens of leadership are often heavy” — unless they are not assumed…

The administration’s Syrian problem is not just poor implementation; it is poor theory. At least in public, Obama is almost exclusively focused on maintaining norms against chemical weapons because this seems a narrow, achievable and morally unambiguous mission. But its very narrowness raises moral and strategic hazards. Is it coherent to evoke moral outrage at the murder of a thousand civilians with nerve gas while ignoring the murder of tens of thousands of civilians with hit squads, artillery, helicopters, bombers and Scud missiles? The Assad regime has bombed school buildings during school hours. Would this matter more if a video were available?