What's Really Behind U.S. Inaction in Syria

The latest reported chemical weapon attack has increased concern about U.S. inaction in Syria, but there may be practical and compelling reasons why Obama has been slow to react.There are potent reasons why President Obama has delayed a response to the Syrian government crossing his red line and using chemical weapons on its own citizens.

Risking a deepening image of presidential dithering, Obama continues to search for a measured response that doesn't repeat mistakes made by the United States in the 1980s in Afghanistan and further strain relations with Russia, which continues to protect the Bashar al-Assad regime. 

This week's report of a chemical weapon attack that may have killed as many as 1,500 Syrians makes Obama's tightrope walk even trickier.

The Washington Post's Max Fisher posted a blog listing five reasons for what appears as Obama inaction. First and foremost is the fear that the rebels, some of whom have affiliation with al-Qaeda, could be worse than the current regime. The United States learned that lesson when it sided with Afghanistan militants in resisting a Soviet invasion. The Russians got repelled, but the United States got sucked into a prolonged war against the Taliban and, at times, with the ruling Karzai government, purportedly a U.S. ally.

Obama's widely ridiculed "lead-from-rear" strategy in Libya resulted in a regime change. But it also resulted in a politically embarrassing episode with a militant attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on the eve of the 2012 presidential election. You can understand Obama's hesitancy to burst in on another party where the United States will inevitably be the piñata.

Fisher says there isn't much political advantage for Obama to become bogged down in Syria, despite his red line ultimatum. He already is accused of public policy attention deficit for jumping from issue to issue. Now Obama, as evidenced by his 2-day bus trip to promote his college affordability agenda, is trying to focus on a few longer-term economic priorities.

Another reason for ignoring the advice of Senator John McCain and others to establish a no-fly zone, Fisher says, is Obama's hope for a negotiated settlement in Syria to ensure some institutional continuity. Taking up arms against the regime may complicate that objective, while potentially inviting Russia to escalate its involvement. 

The Syrian bloodshed and the substantiated use of chemical weapons are deeply troubling, but they may not be at the center of Obama foreign policy, which has shifted to a greater emphasis on the Pacific Basin and specifically on Sino-U.S. relationships, which range from trade, Chinese purchase of U.S. securities, intellectual property protection and computer hacking.

In fact, what happens in Syria may be lower on the priority list in the Middle East to navigating the military takeover in Egypt and restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

What burbling events from Syria to Pakistan suggest is that the region is engulfed in a battle between fundamental and secular Islamists, aggravated in specific regions by ancient tribal animus. U.S. military involvement, civic philanthropy and foreign aid has limited influence, which has cooled enthusiasm for deeper engagement, certainly by American service men and women.

Like his immediate predecessor, Obama seems deeply committed to making the United States less dependent on Middle East oil, which limits the leverage of sultans and dictators to apply pressure on American political leaders.

Obama's inaction in Syria is less a product of indecision than a recognition that America has bigger, more important fish to fry elsewhere.