As political violence engulfs the Middle East, the White House seems to sink deeper into incoherence and passivity. Will reports of a massive chemical attack on Syrian civilians finally rouse President Obama from his torpor, or will they become just the latest outrage du jour in the region's never-ending horror show?
The Syrian opposition claimed that forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad used chemical weapons to kill over 1,000 civilians in the Ghouta suburb of Damascus. Buttressing these reports were harrowing videos of people struggling to breath and photos of scores of bodies that born no outward signs of injury. If confirmed, the poison gas attack would put Assad in the same league as Iraq's Saddam Hussein, who used chemical bombs to wipe out 5,000 Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.
The alleged massacre coincides with the arrival in Syria of a UN team charged with investigating reports that the regime unleashed small-scale chemical attacks against opponents last spring. The timing suggests how little Assad worries about crossing the "red line" President Obama has drawn against the use of chemical weapons. Or perhaps it's a veiled warning about what he's prepared to do if Western powers intervene in Syria.
Although warmly applauded by foreign policy "realists," the administration's resolve to stand aloof from crisis has been a strategic and moral failure. What began as a civil uprising has morphed into something worse: a full-fledged proxy war that is inflaming the region's sectarian divisions. As Shia Iran and Hezbollah fight to save their ally Assad, Sunni jihadis -- some marching under the banner of al Qaeda - are pouring into Syria. This makes it easier for Assad to posture as a protector of Alawite and Christian minorities and a bulwark against the very Salafist terrorists that keep U.S. intelligence agencies awake at night.
But this is emphatically not a case of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." America has no interest in the survival of a homicidal tyrant and war criminal like Assad, even if his fall presents openings to Sunni extremists in Syria. And in truth, the United States isn't very good -- thankfully -- at the kind of cold blooded realpolitik that counsels standing by while Assad, Iran and Hezbollah and Sunni fanatics bleed each other in Syria.