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Rubin: The Syrian stain on Obama

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013 11:15 p.m. CST

There is no bigger contrast in foreign policy these days than the magnitude of the catastrophe in Syria and the U.S. response.

Hoover scholar Fouad Ajami writes: “A doctrine of American passivity has taken hold on the watch of President Obama. George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were no reckless warriors. They had accepted the burden of American power and responsibility. (Indeed, Clinton, in his memoirs, had come to recognize the abdication of his policy over the horrors of Rwanda.) In the Obama era, there shall be no such expressions of remorse. ... We are in an era where the president’s sense of certitude – and the president’s oratory – acquit our policies.”

Obama’s cringe-worthy behavior was on full display last week. Faced with the greatest atrocities since the Bosnian war, he told CNN that he finds Syria’s mass murder of civilians by chemical weapons to be “troublesome.” So far he hasn’t been sufficiently troubled by the 100,000 dead in that country’s war to do anything of consequence.

Then he played lawyer, asserting that “international law” prevents the United States from acting except under the umbrella of the United Nations: “When we take action, there are rules of international law, and if the U.S. goes in and attacks another country without a U.N. mandate and without clear evidence being presented, then there are questions in terms of whether the international law supports it.”

Never mind that the legal standard he propounded (“clear evidence”) was invented out of whole cloth. Clear evidence was presented months ago; in fact, the U.S. confirmed the use of chemical weapons.

The president might chat with former President Bill Clinton about the United States’ ability to act in its own national self-interest when strategic and humanitarian concerns demand it.

Reports suggest that Washington is formulating options for military action against the Syrian regime, despite the absurd warnings of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that a force akin to the Normandy invasion would be required. We suspect that, if action is taken, it will be well short of what is needed to end the conflict and to protect civilians.

Obama has never fully understood the centrality of the U.S. to preserving international stability and preventing mass horrors. His entire scheme of “leading from behind” and deferring to international bodies is designed to refute the idea that the United States must lead, sometimes on its own, in order to prevent great evil.

The gassing and mass slaughter of civilians in Syria amounts to a gruesome and definitive repudiation of Obama’s mind-set. His failure to prevent the horrors of the past two years will be a stain on his reputation, and it marks a historical low point in U.S. foreign policy

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