Despots Love a Vacuum

In the absence of American leadership, dictatorships will be emboldened.

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It wasn't that long ago that Barack Obama took America to the brink of armed conflict in Syria over its use of chemical weapons against rebels trying to topple the Assad regime. The president went as far as asking Congress for a resolution authorizing the use of military force, kicking off a debate which nearly split the country.

No one knows how Congress would have voted because before it could act, Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to one side to broker his own deal bringing the chemical weapons under international control and keeping American war planes on the ground.

The timetable called for Assad and company to turn the weapons over by Dec. 31, but, as AFP has reported, they missed the deadline. The cargo ships sent to pick up the weapons are returning to Cyprus from whence they came while the situation in Syria remains serious and unstable.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

Apparently "red lines" and deadlines set by the international community are, to the Obama White House anyway, as fungible as those set in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which is overseeing the destruction and removal of the Syrian chemical weapons, told AFP it remains optimistic that the job will eventually get done.

"Syria's chemical arsenal has been completely neutralized, the chemical agents and chemical products are under international control, have been sealed," OPCW spokesman Christian Chertier told AFP, adding "the effective dismantling of the production and filling plants is on course."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

According to Chertier, the Syrian government has been stripped of its ability to use the chemical weapons that were still in its possession or to produce any new ones. Somehow, his confidence is of little comfort to those who worry the regime has failed to comply fully with the terms of the Putin-brokered agreement it made and may still be husbanding some weapons for use at a later time. Admittedly, there is no public evidence that suggests it is doing so, but the United States has learned the hard way not to trust the guarantees made by authoritarian leaders in the world's most volatile region.

From start to middle, Obama mishandled what was going on in Syria, just as he seems to have botched things in Egypt and set us up for disaster in Benghazi, Libya. Despite Kerry's globe-trotting activities, it is fairly clear the current president does not pay as much attention to world events as some think he ought.

He may be uncomfortable with the idea of "American exceptionalism" and the United States' role as leader of the free world and only remaining superpower, but he cannot unilaterally withdraw the nation from the world stage. Doing so would create – some would say is creating – a vacuum that will be filled not by those who love liberty, but by despotic regimes seeking to expand their own spheres of influence. That is not in the country's best long-term interests and will threaten some of our most important allies, but will serve our enemies well.

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