The air is going out of the White House's plan to attack Syria, and no matter how ill-considered the idea, this not a cause for celebration. It's another reminder of how little the United States can do in this post-Cold War world where battle lines are blurred, allegiances muddled and "the good guys" hard to find.
There is little doubt that the brutal Bashar Assad regime has used sarin gas to murder its own people, but the American people, having been burned badly by the Bush administration's fictional "weapons of mass destruction" in the lead-up to the disastrous Iraq War, are skeptical if not cynical about any rationale for U.S. military action anywhere in the Middle East. Americans are also unconvinced that there is anything the administration can do militarily that will make a bit of difference anyway. Having ruled out regime change as a goal for military action, President Obama has not established any goal for a military strike beyond punishing Mr. Assad with a bombing run of some kind that will not change the equation there.
And what is the equation there? There are victims in Syria -- innocent children and civilians -- but the rebels battling Mr. Assad are not exactly the freedom fighters who battled King George in our revolution. Many are associated with al-Qaida, and its victory would enable the terrorist organization to take root in Syria as it did in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed. This is a civil war in Syria, and neither faction's hands are clean.
For the sake of argument, if an attack on Syria would have clear, tangible benefits, the commander-in-chief would need the freedom to act quickly. In the contentious run-up to the president's speech Saturday, Syria had plenty of time to move troops and some potential military targets to populated areas where civilians could be used as shields. We can now look forward to a congressional debate of indeterminate length where Democrats and Republicans can posture before the press and pontificate on the talk shows.
By the time that process is halfway complete, paralysis through analysis will have thoroughly set in and the world will have moved on to the next crisis (remember Egypt?). The harsh reality is that there is little America can do when it comes to the self-destructive hatred that rules the Middle East, and while the urge to do something, anything, is understandable it is not reason enough to act.