For the time being, President Barack Obama slowed the rush to conflict in the Middle East. With the usual suspects clamoring for war over Syria - the council of foreign relations, John McCain and the neo-conservative crew - Obama smartly threw the issue to Congress. Because he stupidly drew a line on Syria does not mean that he should be foolishly consistent.
When the British parliament rejected the call for intervention, Obama caught a break. "United action" or lack of it makes for good cover. In April 1954, "Operation Vulture" was canceled because Britain refused to go along with the scheme. Congress used it as a cover to reject American bombing to save the French garrison in Dienbienphu. Congressional approval is no better than even money, a fact that Obama appreciates.
Syria is not an easy call. The coalition arrayed against Assad is a patchwork quilt of Islamic radicals, ambitious placemen and an occasional Democrat. Even the Arab League, no friend of Bashar al Assad, does not approve. But the people that brought you war in 2003 urge a conflict. And as over Iraq, their methods and motives are anything but transparent.
That they urge war now should be of no surprise. Morally smug and intellectually bankrupt, they hawk foreign policy maxims that are a century old. As with President Woodrow Wilson, they believe that we should teach everyone to "elect good men." Egypt had an election and it did not work out, so we gave the military the green light to overthrow the winners. Maybe with the help of neo-cons they will select a government subservient to the will of the United States.
Even honest advocates of intervention in 2012 argue it is too late. Perhaps a genuine democracy was possible, but no longer. Assad also finds himself as a protector of the Christian population, because of the prevalence of al-Qaida among the rebels. Now the choice is between ugliness and obscenity. Obama must have recognized this dilemma and smartly reversed course.
None of the options are particularly promising, and it is not a matter of isolationism versus projecting power abroad. Empires are lost over poor assumptions. Since the Cold War and even during it, the United States made poor wages on results of the government taking action overseas. South Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia proved failures. Libya is a basket case and Pakistan a work in progress. Too much on the table and way too many uncertain results. George W. Bush and his father H.W. triumphantly declared the end of "the Vietnam syndrome" while creating "the Iraq syndrome." Intervention is lodged with marked cynicism, largely because of what Bush, the younger, did in 2003.
Obama's having egg on his face is certainly preferable to facing disaster. One is quickly forgotten, the other provides a disastrous legacy. Obama would do best to contemplate the fate of Anthony Eden, who saw British influence weakened in the Middle East by his foolish actions over Egypt.
To join the foolish consistency club is not preferable to momentary embarrassment.