The case for caution is reinforced by the fact that, odious as the current government of Syria is, there is no guarantee that whatever follows the current government will be better, especially because the strongest element of the opposition forces is militantly anti-American. No matter what the Obama administration says about making sure that U.S. weapons go to the right rebels, it is effectively siding with Sunni extremists against Shiite extremists in a sectarian war.
Polls indicate that Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea that the U.S. has a responsibility to help rebels allied with al-Qaida to defeat a dictator allied with Hezbollah. But instead of heeding that message, Obama seems to be taking advice from Bill Clinton.
"When (voters) tell you not to do these things," the former president opined the day before the White House announced its plans to arm the Syrian opposition, "they're not telling you not to do these things." He continued, "They hire you to win ... to look around the corner and see down the road." He urged Obama not to "look like a total wuss" by staying out of a civil war 6,000 miles away.
History suggests that Clinton overestimates the ability of mere mortals to "see down the road." The very intervention he cited as a model of smart foreign policy -- arming Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviets in the 1980s -- had the unforeseen consequence of strengthening America's future enemies.
But the architect of a stable and peaceful Somalia is unfazed, warning that "we shouldn't over-learn the lessons of the past." That does not seem to be the danger we are facing right now.