Throughout this pantomime, the president's sole confidant seems to have been McDonough, known for his political skill rather than his depth of understanding of the national interest. Having dropped his bombshell, the president went out to play golf, either not understanding or caring how that would appear symbolically. Besides golf, his only sport seems to be jumping to conclusions.
Fundamentally, though, we were on the brink of a major military incursion that would risk American lives in order to restore the reputation and credibility of a naïve president after his loose talk on red lines. Such a casus belli was not going to inspire the nation to support a military undertaking.
The confused responses of the Obama administration demonstrate how profoundly challenged our leadership is at standing up to a dangerous world. None of the White House staff has experience in war or understands it. They have given the Iranians even more reason to believe the U.S. will never attack Iran's growing military power, including its capacity to deliver nuclear warheads carried on missiles.
Similarly, our great ally in the region, Israel, now knows that in its old friend the U.S., it has a partner it cannot rely on.
The consequences are dismaying. Russia has a role in the Middle East it has not had since Egypt's President Anwar Sadat threw the Soviets out of Egypt. It can support its proxies, Syria and Iran, while positioning itself as a defender of international law and peace. Our other staunch opponent, Iran, now sees the American administration as a reluctant power, lacking decisive leadership and burdened with timid congressional support and lagging public and media support, and able to be faked out of protecting U.S. interests by transparent and facile arguments. In fact, the president gave the impression that he was looking for every possible way to avoid observing the red line that he himself had drawn.
The diplomatic disaster is manifest in that we couldn't even persuade fellow G-20 countries to join in a statement on Syria. We sent representatives to Europe to test support, and they came back empty-handed.
We had hung out the good elements of the Syrian opposition, left the French out on a limb, wounded those allies who lined up behind us against Assad and his regional backers, Iran and Hezbollah, and given President Putin another opportunity to stick a thumb in Obama's eye while he was still savoring the triumphant snub of having given refuge to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. Putin clearly had an assessment of Obama. He may well have concluded that Obama was never really serious about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. It would not be surprising if he thought that Obama's only real interest is to exit the Middle East entanglements, get our troops out of the region as fast as possible and do little to try and overthrow or destabilize the regime in Iran.
Putin's prize is not victory in Syria, but the exposure of Obama's deep ambivalence about the use of force to stop Iran. The repercussions are likely to be grave, for strategic issues that go way beyond Syrian opposition. Assad is but a key link in the anti-Western Shiite crescent stretching from Tehran through Damascus to the Mediterranean, where the Russians have their only military base outside the former Soviet Union. We now face a frontal challenge to the Pax-Americana in the Sunni-Arab Middle East that includes Jordan, the Gulf states, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, already anxious about Iran and the prospect that Russia would supplant the U.S. as the dominant regional Arab leader. President Obama has crucially undermined the key relationships with our former Sunni allies, who have been moaning about this all over the diplomatic world and who are essential to preserving regional stability.
What is left in the debris is uncertainty about our judgments. What Putin is seeking is not victory in Syria – Assad is now winning that. He has become Iran's key ally, and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states will now conclude that the U.S. is abandoning the Sunni states and leaving Russia to be the great benefactor in the critical region. There are now very few people in the region who believe the U.S. has the guts to block Iran from getting nukes – impossible without the prospect of an American military option.