For better or worse, governments tend to be defined by their handling of foreign crises. Weather one well, and you project an image of strong, principled leadership, much like the way Margaret Thatcher's government managed its dispute with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. Dither or delay, and you telegraph an air of provocative weakness. (Think Jimmy Carter and Iran.)
By that yardstick, the Obama Administration is failing badly, and on no issue more than Syria.
For more than two years, the White House has agonized over what to do about the brutal civil war the regime of Bashar al-Assad has waged against its own people. Worries over Islamist elements among Syria's rebels have dampened Washington's enthusiasm for the country's opposition forces. An allergy to open-ended intervention, meanwhile, has led U.S. officials to studiously avoid making serious decisions about whether an active American role is needed to truly stop the violence.
The human toll of this inaction has been immense. U.N. officials now put the number of deaths from the Syrian crisis at 70,000. According to Syrian opposition sources, however, the actual casualty count is nearly twice that number.
Thousands more have been displaced. According to U.N. statistics, more than 1.2 million civilians have now fled Syria and sought refuge in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and elsewhere. In human terms, Syria's unrest now dwarfs the Libya's "Arab Spring," where Team Obama chose to intervene in 2011.
Of late, however, things have gotten much worse. Last week, the White House confirmed it believes the Syrian regime recently used chemical weapons against opposition forces. That action marks a major escalation of the crisis, and one that violates President Obama's previously articulated "red line" for American intervention.
Assad likely took that provocative step because he calculated that, after more than two years of inaction in the face of mounting brutality by his regime, Washington wouldn't blink at this transgression either. If that is the case, he appears to have wagered correctly.
Indeed, in the wake of the recent revelations about Syria's chemical weapons usage, the administration has revised its own red lines downward. "We cannot stand by and permit the systematic use of weapons like chemical weapons on civilian populations," President Obama said late last week. In other words, since Assad stepped over its old red line, the administration is now busy drawing another.
Since then, the White House appears to have begun to contemplate sterner measures, including potentially the arming of Syria's rebels. Even so, American policy remains anything but robust.
This, in turn, has made a further escalation of the conflict all the more likely, as worried regional neighbors realize they need to take matters into their own hands. Indeed, over the weekend, Israeli jets reportedly bombed a chemical weapons facility near the Syrian capital of Damascus in an attempt to erode Assad's strategic arsenal.
It's also bound to influence adversaries like Iran and North Korea. The former is now more likely to engage in a sprint to the nuclear finish line, wagering that Washington won't act decisively to prevent it. The latter, meanwhile, is liable to harden its already bellicose strategic posture, perhaps even through another demonstration of its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities.
These developments are a reflection of the bankruptcy of our Syria policy -- and of America's declining strategic credibility writ large. After all, it stands to reason that if Washington doesn't enforce its own red lines on Syria, it won't truly hold Iran or North Korea to account for their actions either. In fact, Tehran and Pyongyang must be banking on it.