Much is being made this week of Syria's possible use of chemical weapons, and the range of potential US responses. The Obama administration, having (perhaps foolishly) drawn rhetorical red lines around the use of chemicals in an attempt to deter, now faces the choice of what to do if/when deterrence fails. Evidence is leaking out slowly but it seems likely that sooner or later, the Assad regime will be found to have gassed people in its ongoing battle with opposition forces. The US will then have to do something, if for no other reason than the President said we would.
The problem is, what to do? Within the realm of domestic politics, Obama is in a quandary: if he does nothing, he will be attacked for having wasted US credibility on a failed effort to deter Assad. But anything he does decide to do will be criticized by somebody (Republicans almost certainly, but there's not much stomach for intervention even among Democrats). The voices within the US who really care about Syria and who have a really clear idea of what they want the US to do are few and far between. Domestically, this is a no-win scenario for the President - even if by some miracle he rescues Syria from disaster with few costs and no American casualties, not enough people will care. It's all jobs, all the time now, with the occasional break for fights over gay marriage, Gitmo, and whether we should try Dzokhar Tsarnaev as an "enemy combatant". Syria is so far down the list of national priorities you need a helmet and a lantern to find it.
Things don't get any better on the international front. Assad, for whatever reason, seems committed to fighting to the last Syrian to maintain power. Of the range of possible US intervention options, none look good:
• We learned in Iraq that Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn" rule is correct: you break it, you bought it. In part because of the Iraq experience and in part because Americans just don't care about Syria enough (see above), full-scale invasion to take out Assad, occupy the country, and sort out its politics to our own taste is untenable in about eight different ways. It's not even clear that the Syrian opposition forces would want such "help".
• A shorter-form invasion (go in, knock over Assad, leave) is equally problematic because it seems likely that civil war would immediately break out among the factions (possibly also including the Kurds, which creates a broader regional problem), and because some of those factions are virulently anti-American. If the rabid Islamists win, Assad may look like a good friend in comparison. So invasion without occupation doesn't help much either.
• An argument could be made for providing air cover - the ever-popular "no-fly zone". But it's not clear who would be helped most by this (see above), and the opposition is doing a pretty good job of thwarting Assad's air power by taking over airfields on the ground. At best, the impact of such a move on the war would be tactical, and the loss of even a single US pilot untenable for such a marginal (from the US perspective) gain.
• The most frequent call these days is "arm the rebels!" But here we run into the Afghanistan problem - not Afghanistan of the last decade, but anti-Soviet Mujahedeen Afghanistan in the 1980s. There the US provided as much support to rebel forces as we could pump into the country - and unwittingly helped the creation of al Qaeda and the Taliban. With increasing reports about the ascendancy of Islamist fighters among the Syrian opposition movement, sending these folks weapons sounds like a recipe for disaster both strategically and politically. Unfortunately that leaves the field open to those countries and networks who are backing the Islamists, but there's not enough of a non-Islamist alternative for the US to trust with weapons drops.
• Just about everything else that could be done - diplomatic pressure, targeted economic sanctions, humanitarian/non-lethal aid to opposition groups - is already being done. You'll notice how much credit Obama is getting for that effort...
Syria represents the kind of foreign policy nightmare that US Presidents dread. It's a humanitarian disaster (70,000 deaths and counting, millions displaced) with connections to two hot-button issues: chemical weapons (the infamous "WMDs" that got us so riled up about Iraq) and Islamic terrorism (could Syria become the next Afghanistan training-ground?) But it's also a situation that American power, no matter how vast, has almost no ability to significantly control. The collected power of US military and diplomatic might cannot get Syrians to stop fighting and agree amongst themselves how they ought to govern their society in peace and prosperity, any more than we have been able to do so in Lebanon (think back...), Egypt, Lybia, or Iraq.
The rational response, faced with such a no-win scenario, would seem to be to level with the American people: this is a terrible situation, we hope Syrians can work it out, but there's not much we can do. Henry Kissinger suggested something similar with respect to Bosnia in the 1990s, but was ignored. That strategy would require the President to admit that there are real limits to American power - a move tantamount to political suicide, as it attacks one of our most cherished myths (the Greatest Nation on Earth/"If we can put a man on the moon..." syndrome).
In this sense, the ultimate failure isn't the President's (however much Republicans will argue that it is, no matter what he does) - it's ours. We are the ones who either demand or put up with the screwball politics that drive this machine - what Daniel Ellsberg, in another war of another time, called "the Stalemate Machine". The sooner we learn to accept that bad things happen that we can't control, and stop blaming whoever sits in the White House for everything in the world, the more sensible our politics and our policies can become.