A lot has been written about President Obama's equivocal response to the almost equally equivocal evidence (so far) that Syria has used chemical weapons against its own people. Having earlier drawn a 'red line' on this issue it seems that Obama is now hurriedly rubbing it out.
You cannot blame him. America cannot afford military intervention in Syria (even if, eventually, it might have to do it anyway). What's more, America and its allies aren't any good at intervention, as Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya, if anyone cared enough to be still watching) underline.
And yet Obama's seemingly prudent avoidance of another military entanglement in the Middle East would be more compelling if there was a sense that he was investing in other less destructive means to bring the Syrian conflict to an end. But sanctions, some non-lethal military assistance, a little shepherding of the Syrian opposition and prodding of the P5 in the Security Council seem to be the limit of America's foreign policy imagination on Syria these days.
I am not suggesting America should start lining up the troops for intervention. But I would have thought that a little more diplomatic attention and political muscle now might help forestall military intervention later once the Syrian regime eventually does something outrageous enough – as it probably will — to compel Obama to act.
It is, I know, easy to criticise America's handling of what is a diabolical problem. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what is taking place here is not some cautious husbanding of American power for the right moment, but an almost reckless willingness to allow American policy to be dictated by events on the ground.
And it is being dictated: by the Iranians, by the Turks, by the Saudis and even by the little Qataris, all of whom are directing forceful energy and considerable treasure to feed their proxies and fuel the conflict's escalation.
Not only is such an abdication of responsibility ultimately damaging to America's interest in the region, it will accelerate the downward spiral of American influence. If Obama's current approach makes it seem to regional allies and enemies alike that Syria does not matter to America anymore, then why listen to, or fear, America anymore?
In that regard, perhaps the most disturbing thing about the last week was not Obama's shuffle back from his own red line on intervention, but the language he used to justify it. In particular, this response to a reporter's question during a press conference with King Abdullah of Jordan caught my eye (my emphasis):
And I think that, in many ways, a line has been crossed when we see tens of thousands of innocent people being killed by a regime. But the use of chemical weapons and the dangers that poses to the international community, to neighbors of Syria, the potential for chemical weapons to get into the hands of terrorists -- all of those things add increased urgency to what is already a significant security problem and humanitarian problem in the region.
Obama thinks that 'in many ways' a line has been crossed when 'tens of thousands of innocent people' have been killed. Really? 'In many ways?' I would have thought a line had been crossed, full stop. Likewise, he says the use of chemical weapons would add 'increased urgency' to a 'significant...humanitarian problem'. This is bureaucratic-speak from the great American orator. Is 'significant' really the limit of his descriptive eloquence to describe a conflict that by UN account has already killed over 70,000 people and has become one of the world's worst refugee crises?
One might find excuse for Obama in the fact that it was an unprepared remark; perhaps it was a little underdone, rhetorically. In other circumstances (say the Boston bombing) it would even be an appropriate withdrawal from the hyperbole that has come to characterise public pronouncements on national security matters.
Instead, what it seems to reveal is a new habit of mind and expression that will not be reassuring to those who still see an important role for America in the world – even a more prudent America.
As Owen Harries and Tom Switzer argue in the latest edition of The American Interest, Obama 'rightly' wants to focus on nation-building at home. 'But only when he articulates an approach that emphasizes prudence and modesty in the most forceful and eloquent manner will such a doctrine win public acceptance.' To which I would add – public acceptance, both in America, but also abroad.