Remember when President Obama used to warn Syria's Bashar al-Assad to stop his mass killing and step down?
Muammar Gadhafi's dictatorship had then just collapsed under Western bombing. The murders of Americans in Benghazi and the subsequent postwar tribal mess in Libya were still in the future. In those heady days of 2011, the rage was "lead from behind," the blooming Arab Spring and social-media types calling for democracy in the streets of Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood was proclaimed to be largely "secular." Echoing the pseudo-disavowals of Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini years earlier, the American-educated Mohamed Morsi insisted that his Islamist movement was not interested in running Egypt.
Now comes a depressing Arab Winter of chaos and growing Islamic authoritarianism. Egypt is a mess, with a wrecked economy and wide scale persecution of Coptic minorities. No one yet knows exactly what actually happened in Benghazi. More than ever, the stubborn Assad clings to power. He calculates that killing 70,000 of his own is far better math than sharing the fate of other deposed Arab dictators such as Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak.
The result is that Obama's threats of yesterday about Syrian use of weapons of mass destruction are now contextualized and internationalized. We sorta, kinda want the United Nations, our allies or maybe the Arab League first to certify Assad guilty of using weapons of mass destruction. Then we can eventually, at some time in the future, organize a coalition to address the problem.
The president finds himself in a terrible dilemma with Syria -- partly one of his own making, partly also due to the lose-lose nature of the Middle East. Obama rightly understands that to remove repugnant Arab dictators tottering amid insurrection is not difficult, given overwhelming American airpower. But he also realizes that the freewheeling tribal and sectarian mess that follows can be almost as odious as the authoritarian police state that crumbles.
The third alternative -- fostering a postwar democracy, as in Iraq -- requires a multiyear investment in American blood and treasure of the sort that former Sen. and presidential candidate Obama damned as foolhardy. He appreciates how Iraq imploded the second term of the George W. Bush presidency. Without that unpopular war, fierce antiwar critic but otherwise relatively unknown and untried Barack Obama might have never won the Democratic presidential primary.