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It is said that when famed Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich heard of the death of the Turkish ambassador, he said, "I wonder what he meant by that?" True or not, serious or a joke, it points out a problem of diplomacy. In searching for the meaning behind every gesture, diplomats start to regard every action merely as a gesture. In the past month, the president of the United States treated the act of bombing Syria as a gesture intended to convey meaning rather than as a military action intended to achieve some specific end. This is the key to understanding the tale that unfolded over the past month.

When President Barack Obama threatened military action in retaliation for what he claimed was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, he intended a limited strike that would not destroy the weapons. Destroying them all from the air would require widespread air attacks over an extensive period of time, and would risk releasing the chemicals into the atmosphere. The action also was not intended to destroy Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. That, too, would be difficult to do from the air, and would risk creating a power vacuum that the United States was unwilling to manage. Instead, the intention was to signal to the Syrian government that the United States was displeased.

The threat of war is useful only when the threat is real and significant. This threat, however, was intended to be insignificant. Something would be destroyed, but it would not be the chemical weapons or the regime. As a gesture, therefore, what it signaled was not that it was dangerous to incur American displeasure, but rather that American displeasure did not carry significant consequences. The United States is enormously powerful militarily and its threats to make war ought to be daunting, but instead, the president chose to frame the threat such that it would be safe to disregard it.

Avoiding Military Action

In fairness, it was clear at the beginning that Obama did not wish to take military action against Syria. Two weeks ago I wrote that this was "a comedy in three parts: the reluctant warrior turning into the raging general and finding his followers drifting away, becoming the reluctant warrior again." Last week in Geneva, the reluctant warrior re-appeared, put aside his weapons and promised not to attack Syria.

When he took office, Obama did not want to engage in any war. His goal was to raise the threshold for military action much higher than it had been since the end of the Cold War, when Desert Storm, Somalia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq and other lesser interventions formed an ongoing pattern in U.S. foreign policy. Whatever the justifications for any of these, Obama saw the United States as being overextended by the tempo of war. He intended to disengage from war and to play a lesser role in general in managing the international system. At most, he intended to be part of the coalition of nations, not the leader and certainly not the lone actor.

He clearly regarded Syria as not meeting the newly raised standard. It was embroiled in a civil war, and the United States had not been successful in imposing its will in such internal conflicts. Moreover, the United States did not have a favorite in the war. Washington has a long history of hostility toward the al Assad regime. But it is also hostile to the rebels, who -- while they might have some constitutional democrats among their ranks -- have been increasingly falling under the influence of radical jihadists. The creation of a nation-state governed by such factions would re-create the threat posed by Afghanistan and leading to Sept. 11, and do so in a country that borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon. Unless the United States was prepared to try its hand again once again at occupation and nation-building, the choice for Washington had to be "none of the above."

Strategy and the specifics of Syria both argued for American distance, and Obama followed this logic. Once chemical weapons were used, however, the reasoning shifted. Two reasons explain this shift.

WMD and Humanitarian Intervention

One was U.S. concerns over weapons of mass destruction. From the beginning of the Cold War until the present, the fear of nuclear weapons has haunted the American psyche. Some would say that this is odd given that the United States is the only nation that has used atomic bombs. I would argue that it is precisely because of this. Between Hiroshima and mutual assured destruction there was a reasonable dread of the consequences of nuclear war. Pearl Harbor had created the fear that war might come unexpectedly at any moment, and intimate awareness of Hiroshima and Nagasaki generated fear of sudden annihilation in the United States.