“America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options.” So said Winston Churchill. That’s a great description not only of the United States in general but also of President Obama’s foreign policy in particular. Obama usually winds up in the right place—though not always—but even when he does it is only after a long period of hesitation and study.
Thus he finally dumped Hosni Mubarak. He finally intervened in Libya. He finally gave up on negotiating with the mullahs in Tehran. He finally supported the surge in Afghanistan. In all those cases his actions would probably have been more effective if he had acted earlier. But that’s not Obama’s way. He is the commander-in-chief as professor, always eager to immerse himself in the details, to study every option, to avoid action until it is absolutely unavoidable.
That’s what happened in the case of Syria. The news today is that the administration is finally applying sanctions against Bashar al-Assad and six other senior members of the criminal clique that rules in Damascus. The Alawite regime has been slaughtering protesters for weeks even as the U.S. issued nothing more than weak condemnations. Obama, it seemed, was hesitant to give up on his earlier dreams of engaging Assad as a “peace partner.” This too is part of a pattern. Many of Obama’s hesitations have come because the press of events has forced him to shed the ultra-liberal illusions that he came into office with.
So congratulations to him for finally waking up and realizing that Assad is no “partner” in the quest for Middle East peace. Instead, Assad is one of the most dangerous and obdurate obstacles faced by the U.S. and the West. There can be no compromise with the blood-stained dictator of Damascus. Rather, the U.S. and its allies must throw their weight behind the Syrian opposition and do whatever can be done to help them achieve peaceful regime change.
Obama’s education has been painful and costly—it has already consumed half of his first term in office. It would have been better if he had come into office with fewer illusions. But at least it has not taken him as long as Jimmy Carter, who only saw the light after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
On the other hand, Obama’s education is still incomplete. Now the key test will be his speech tomorrow at the State Department. Will he give up one of his major remaining illusions—that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is of central importance in the region and can only be solved by American pressure on Israel?