There was one moment in President Obama’s world-weary press conference last Tuesday when he seemed genuinely interested and engaged. At the very end, when Obama had already begun to depart the podium, a reporter shouted a question about the previously obscure but now famously gay NBA center, Jason Collins. Obama returned to the podium and was animated as he expressed his pride in Collins: “I told him I couldn’t be prouder of him. . . . And I think America should be proud. . . . So I’m very proud of him.”
In the meantime, between his hoop-shooting and golf-playing expeditions and his expositions on the social significance of sports, the president does have a day job. At the press conference he implicitly acknowledged that his job performance on Syria hasn’t been all that great. “What’s happening in Syria,” he said, “is a blemish on the international community generally.” But Barack Obama claims to be nothing if not a leader of “the international community.” So a blemish on the international community is a blemish on the presidency of Barack Obama.
Indeed, when it comes to Syria, even Barack Obama couldn’t claim that there’s much to be proud of: After two years of posturing and vacillating, of big talk and no action, of portentous but unenforced warnings, 75,000 people have died, Bashar al-Assad has remained in power and used chemical weapons, turmoil has spread to neighboring countries and the region has become increasingly unstable and dangerous, and America’s credibility lies in tatters.
But Obama may still act. Despite the wavering red line he seems to have laid down, Obama still maintains his earlier position that the (appropriately verified and confirmed, chain-of-custody and all) use of chemical weapons “would be a game-changer,” a phrase he repeated three times at his press conference, and elaborated on once: “That is a game-changer because what that portends is potentially even more devastating attacks on civilians, and it raises the strong possibility that those chemical weapons can fall into the wrong hands and get disseminated in ways that would threaten U.S. security or the security of our allies.”
So what is to be done? The options are far worse than they were two years ago. But Barack Obama must know that in the rough world of Middle East politics, as in the rough world of NBA basketball with which he seems more familiar, a game-changer unresponded-to results in a changed game. It results in defeat.
We’re already far down the path to a defeat for American interests and principles in Syria, having failed to respond promptly and strongly. Still, a strong if late response would be better than none. A half-hearted late response—such as arming some of the rebels—might not be. It could well be too little, too late. So the American response to the game-changer has to be itself game-changing, i.e., serious. It’s hard to see what a serious response would be short of direct American engagement—perhaps a combination of enforcement of a no-fly zone and aerial attacks. And no serious president would rule out a few boots on the ground (it’s pretty hard to secure chemical weapons by air).
Bashar al-Assad doesn’t seem to be as much of a sports fan as Barack Obama. So far as we know, he hasn’t opined on the Jason Collins matter. But he—and everyone else in the region—does seem to understand the game of power politics.
Western leaders once understood this game too. Here’s Winston Churchill, over a half century ago:
The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has established firm influence and shown that it will maintain its will. Your friends must be supported with every vigour and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all better recognize it. At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.
We’re unfortunately approaching a state where “our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.” That would be disastrous for us, and for the world. An American president has no more important job than to check, and then reverse, the momentum toward such an outcome.
The ball is in Barack Obama’s court. And it’s not just a game.