Back in the long-ago year 2007, when Gen. David Petraeus was putting into action a whole new strategy called the Surge, an integral and indeed indispensable part of his plan was the Awakening, a revolt of tribesmen in Anbar Province against the forces terrorizing Iraq. The general foresaw that revolt spreading throughout Iraq with American support.
Despite the opposition of prominent senators who would go on to hold prominent positions in this administration -- Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chuck Hagel and the like -- the Surge saved Iraq in surprisingly short order, and gave birth to a new hope of freedom in the Middle East.
This time it is America that has begun to have an Awakening. And about time, for this president, as one of his apologists once put it, has been "leading from behind." Way behind. With the result that even more innocents have died, even more refugees have fled, and even more atrocities are committed as a fresh hell comes to Syria every morning.
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If you want to see a world without American leadership, just look at what has happened in and to Syria. Our happily former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, aka Our Lady of Benghazi, had nothing but sympathy for the victims of Bashar al-Assad's tyranny. And I mean nothing but. For words are one thing, deeds another. Except for lip service and some halfway -- no, quarterway -- measures of support, this country has had precious little to offer the increasingly desperate cause of freedom of Syria.
Our "experts" at the State Department have become expert at explaining what can't be done to help the Syrians, not what could be. It figures. For this administration tends to make its decisions on the basis of public opinion polls, and maybe nothing else. And it's clear enough that Americans are sick of involvement abroad, just as Americans were in the Roaring -- and oblivious -- Twenties. Those now in charge of American foreign policy, if anyone is, have been content to just let the dust settle in Syria. And the blood.
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Peace in our time hasn't changed all that much since the 1930s, which inevitably led to the cataclysmic 1940s. For the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil in the world, as Edmund Burke once observed, is that good men do nothing. Case in disastrous point: A good man but a poor statesman named Neville Chamberlain couldn't understand why his countrymen should grow so exercised about "a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing." He found out soon enough, and so did an imperiled free world. Only a Winston Churchill could see the mounting danger ahead.
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The few warning voices that have long called for American action to support the forces of freedom in Syria -- like John McCain and Lindsey Graham in the U.S. Senate -- have been ignored far too long. Along with the strategic consequences of this administration's lassitude while tens of thousands die and millions flee, overwhelming the resources of neighboring countries and threatening their stability.
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Vali Nasr, now a dean at John Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, is no longer with the Obama administration, and one can understand why, for he is much too close to the mark for comfort when he writes:
"Events in Syria are spinning in Iran's favor. Assad's regime is winning ground, the war has made Iran more comfortable in its nuclear pursuits, and Iran's gains have embarrassed U.S. allies that support the Syrian uprising. What's more, Iran has strengthened its relationship with Russia, which may prove to be the most important strategic consequence of the Syrian conflict, should the U.S. continue to sit it out."
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Now, at agonizingly long last, the administration may act, not just talk about acting. Some time ago, this wavering president warned that the use of chemical weapons like sarin in Syria would be a "red line." That line grew increasingly faint. Now the White House has recognized evidence that such weapons have indeed been used in Syria, and signaled that Washington may finally offer the forces of freedom in Syria something besides hope betrayed. Such as desperately needed weapons and maybe even no-fly zones over that country, which might give the Free Syrian Army some air cover.
But it would be a mistake to make our involvement in Syria's civil war depend on debatable evidence about weapons of mass destruction, which once obscured the case for ridding Iraq of its tyrant, too. Saddam Hussein needed to go because he represented a clear and ever more dangerous threat not just to his people but to the stability of a region as vital to the peace of the world as the middle of Europe once was.
There are much better and clearer reasons than his use of chemical weapons to explain why Bashar al-Assad in Syria needs to go at last, and his country be set free. To take the lead in such an effort is a hazardous undertaking, almost as hazardous as not leading. For we can all see where this administration lethargy has led.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria may at last provide the occasion for American intervention, but it would scarcely be the cause, which goes far deeper. Like saving the Middle East. Here's hoping Washington will finally act, and act with determination. To quote Wellington, the Iron Duke, "a great country can have no such thing as a little war." It was a later British prime minister, the one known as the Iron Lady, who once had to remind another American president that now is no time to go wobbly.
What has been lacking in this administration's foreign policy has been what a foreign policy most calls for: constancy of purpose. In short, what has been lacking in this administration's strategy in the Middle East is a strategy. Instead, we have had an ad-hoc foreign policy under the aegis of President Innocent Bystander, not leadership or direction. Can that be changing? Does this latest flicker of hope out of Washington portend an American awakening? It can't happen too soon.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is email@example.com.)